HONG KONG • The Hong Kong government’s decision to postpone an election for the city’s legislature by a year, by invoking emergency legislation after a spike in coronavirus cases, may be unlawful, the city’s bar association said.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam last Friday postponed the polls for the Legislative Council, or Legco, citing public health dangers, but said there were political considerations.
The election would have been the former British colony’s first official vote since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong to tackle what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with punishment of up to life in prison.
Electoral rules in Hong Kong only allow votes to be postponed for 14 days, but colonial-era laws give the government broad powers in case of threats to public safety.
In a statement on Sunday, the Hong Kong Bar Association said the electoral law was more recent and more specific when it comes to public health hazards at election time and “generally” should take precedence over older legislation.
Invoking emergency legislation to delay the scheduled vote “may turn out to be unlawful”, it said.
In response to the comments by the bar association, a Hong Kong government spokesman said yesterday that postponing the election for 14 days is not a practical solution to this unprecedented problem.
The current wave of Covid-19 infections would likely last for at least several weeks or longer, the spokesman added, noting that there may also be a winter surge later in the year.
“If the power to postpone the election for 14 days is repeatedly invoked, it will likely be regarded as a misuse of power subject to legal challenge. On top of that, it will create highly undesirable uncertainties for all parties concerned,” the spokesman said.
On invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to postpone the election, the spokesman stressed that it was the only viable option.
“The legal basis is sound, as the present epidemic situation can be regarded as an occasion of public danger and emergency, and the decision to postpone is in the public interest,” the spokesman said.
The State Council, or China’s Cabinet, has also expressed support for the decision to postpone the election and undertook “to make a submission in accordance with the law to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for its decision”, the spokesman added.
Mrs Lam had said earlier that the government was seeking help from the Chinese Parliament’s top decision making body to resolve the legislative vacuum created by the expiring mandate of the Legco.
Mr Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s Cabinet, was visiting Hong Kong to meet people and listen to their views on the matter, broadcaster RTHK reported yesterday.
The United States has condemned the postponement of the election, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was likely that “Hong Kong will never again be able to vote – for anything or anyone”.