HK democrats plan to remain in office

Sixteen of 23 sitting Opposition lawmakers will keep their seats on HK’s 70-member Legislative Council

HONG KONG • A majority of Hong Kong’s (HK) pro-democracy lawmakers plan to remain in office after China’s decision to extend their terms without a planned election.

Sixteen of 23 sitting Opposition lawmakers will keep their seats on Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council (LegCo), pan-democrat politicians said at a news conference yesterday. The announcement came after a week-long survey of democracy supporters revealed a split among the Opposition’s supporters over whether their lawmakers should step down in protest against the delay.

Neither side secured a majority in the poll conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, though there was slightly greater support for Opposition members keeping their seats. The survey found that 47.1% of supporters said lawmakers should serve out the term, versus 45.8% who favoured their resignation.

Hong Kong’s Opposition lawmakers had commissioned the survey to help resolve a debate over whether they should resign en masse over the government’s decision to a delay an election planned for Sept 6, ostensibly due to coronavirus concerns. More radical supporters argued that staying for an extended session scheduled to begin next month risked legitimising what they see as the latest in a series of steps to weaken democratic institutions in the former British colony.

The split results of the poll leave neither side with a clear mandate before the next session of the Legislative Council that starts Oct 14. While some 15 Opposition lawmakers had pledged to step down if a majority supported the move, two members — Eddie Chu and Raymond Chan — already announced on Monday that they would resign.

“We understand that this is a formidable decision as we are in a dilemma,” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said at the briefing. “We will stay in the legislature so that we can continue to voice out for the public, block the progress of draconian laws and stay united with society.”

Wu was one of the lawmakers who said he would remain in office. The others included Claudia Mo, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Opposition voices and a key figure during historic pro-democracy protests last year.

Tanya Chan, a founding member of the Civic Party, said she would resign citing a need to prioritise her health after being treated for a brain tumour.

The decision to stay could harden divisions within Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, already weakened after a clampdown on local Opposition by China that has included a sweeping new national security law, arrests of prominent democratic figures and the mass disqualification of legislative candidates.

Any resignations in the wake of the poll are likely to play into Beijing’s efforts to dismantle the Opposition after it gained momentum from a landslide victory in District Council elections held last November and led to the protests against the city’s Beijing-backed administration.

So-called radical members of the bloc favour stepping down as a way to delegitimise China’s postponement of the LegCo election, while their moderate counterparts worry that by doing so, they would give up their biggest remaining political platform — and further enable Beijing to curb Hong Kong’s civil liberties.

Even without a majority in the legislature, Opposition politicians were able to block a China-backed bill that would have ensured only candidates approved by the central government in Beijing could have been elected as Chief Executive.

If a number of lawmakers resign, it will make it more difficult for the group to block future Beijing- approved measures. The Opposition would also have to forfeit funds politicians are allotted to hire staff and lease offices.

By staying in office for an unelected year, the Opposition could face accusations of siding with Beijing, potentially causing backlash when the election is finally held next year.

Another challenge will be proving “that they can use their official capacity to force the government to stop imposing harsh curbs on civil liberties, especially since they received less than 50% of a mandate from the poll,” said Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“They will have to prove to the other half —most of us would speculate that it is the radical half of the democratic supporters — that they are right to stay in the legislature,” Choy said. — Bloomberg