A Legislative Council candidate’s death or disqualification during the race for a directly elected seat will trigger the postponement of that particular geographical constituency contest, according to a senior Hong Kong official.
The constituency’s elections would be rescheduled under changes designed to avoid a candidate winning a seat without challenge, said Roy Tang Yun-kwong, permanent secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs.
The new amendment was outlined to lawmakers on Wednesday as part of the government’s implementation of the drastic Beijing-decreed reforms to the city’s electoral system.
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The overhaul slashes the number of directly elected seats in geographical constituencies from 35 to 20 in an expanded 90-member legislature.
Under the Hong Kong government’s amendments, the city will be divided into 10 constituencies each returning two elected representatives to Legco.
The arrangement – in contrast to the previous system of proportional representation – is likely to discourage both sides of the political spectrum from putting forward more than one contestant in each constituency, as winning both seats there would become almost impossible.
But it remains to be seen whether any opposition party will even want to advance any candidates given the stringent vetting mechanisms imposed by Beijing.
Tang and his colleagues told lawmakers that pulling elections in the event of a candidate’s death or disqualification was not new, although it had previously only applied to the trade-based functional constituencies, which have smaller electorates and often fewer contenders.
“If it so happened that only two candidates would take part in the election, or even three, the public would still lose the chance to vote for their ideal candidate. That’s why we have made reference to the way in which we deal with the situation in the functional constituencies,” Tang said to city legislators scrutinising draft legislation underpinning the reforms.
The lawmakers are going through the Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Bill 2021, which carries more than 700 pages of legal amendments required for the central government’s grand plan to take effect.
If the mechanism was triggered, Tang said, the elections in a specific geographical constituency would be pushed back to a later date to allow Legco aspirants to sign up for the rescheduled race, while polls for directly elected seats in other parts of the city would go ahead.
But the arrangement prompted pro-establishment lawmakers to flag concerns over electoral fairness and campaign expenses.
Some from the camp also feared the system could be weaponised by those wanting to disrupt the elections. But officials dismissed such concerns, saying a newly installed vetting committee would screen out those intent on disorder.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, from the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), said cancelling a functional constituency election was straightforward because the scale of campaigning was often far below that for a geographical seat.
But doing the same in a higher-stakes geographic constituency race ran the risk of being “really unfair” to the remaining candidate, said Mak, who represents the New Territories West constituency.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, from the New People Party, and FTU’s Wong Kwok-kin – both elected through geographical electorates and Executive Council advisers – took issue with the government’s refusal to reimburse affected candidates if elections were called off. Tang, the permanent secretary, pledged to look into that issue again.
Concerned about the potential exploitation of loopholes, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress’ Chan Hak-kan, for the New Territories East constituency, asked what would happen if candidates signed up for elections knowing they could be disqualified.
Tang also pointed to the new vetting committee intervening early to stop those candidates, while assuring Chan such scenarios would be rare.
The amendment bill previously drew flak from critics over the government redefining boundaries of the geographical constituencies without involving the Electoral Affairs Commission, the statutory body overseeing the city’s electoral matters.
The previous five constituencies – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon East, Kowloon West, New Territories East and New Territories West – have been divided into 10: Hong Kong Island East, Hong Kong Island West, Kowloon East, Kowloon Central, Kowloon West, New Territories South West, New Territories North West, New Territories North, New Territories North East and New Territories South East.
Tang said the government went ahead with the delineation process on this occasion because of time constraints, but said responsibility for doing so in the future would rest with the commission.
Under the shake-up of Hong Kong’s electoral system announced last month, Legco is expanding from 70 to 90 seats, despite the chamber’s reduction in directly elected seats.
A newly empowered Election Committee, which is dominated by Beijing loyalists, will send 40 representatives to the legislature.
The Election Committee will have the gatekeeping power to decide which Legco candidates to nominate, while hopefuls will also have to get through a screening process by a vetting committee advised by national security police officers.
The government aims to pass the local legislation enabling the electoral overhaul in May.
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