Hong Kong Takes the Zero-Risk Poll Option

Hong Kong’s decision to bar a dozen pro-democracy candidates from contesting legislative elections and then to postpone the vote by a year won’t leave its economic prospects unscathed. It’s a striking reminder of how threatening elections can be for authoritarian governments — even those where the system is stacked in their favor.

The authorities’ actions further narrow the scope for public dissent in the former British colony, after Beijing passed a national security law at the end of June following months of anti-government and pro-democracy protests last year. That legislation overrides Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the document that enshrines the liberties that were supposed to be guaranteed for 50 years under the terms of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Disinterested observers may wonder why they bothered. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has limited power. The assembly has no direct link to the city’s executive-led and Beijing-appointed government, although it approves spending and taxes. Only half of the 70 seats are directly elected by voters under universal suffrage. The rest are mostly picked by corporations and individuals representing industries and professions, some with tiny electorates and many tilted heavily toward the pro-Beijing establishment.

The government’s stated reason for the delay — the risk of spreading infection amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases — looks flimsy. Hong Kong’s third wave is indeed grave, but there is little evidence that the election would make it worse. South Korea’s April ballot caused no significant outbreaks and it recorded its highest turnout in almost three decades.

Consider what Hong Kong would have gained by allowing a free vote to go ahead. An open and inclusive campaign would have been a showcase for the values that the city’s chief executive says remain intact, and given the government a counter-argument to those who contend the security law has extinguished Hong Kong’s essential freedoms. As Ben Bland of the Lowy Institute points out, anti-establishment voices would have been given a safe place to speak up, international recognition, political experience and funding. 

The government wasn’t willing to risk it. Officials went to the opposite extreme, disqualifying even moderate opposition candidates such as the sitting legislator who represents the accountancy profession — hardly a hotbed of radicalism.

In fact, the chances of an electoral embarrassment were high. Last year, voters turned out in record numbers for the District Council elections — bodies that handle mundane matters such as refuse collection and traffic. Such was the level of anti-government feeling that pro-democracy candidates secured almost 90% of 452 seats (a result exaggerated somewhat by a first-past-the-post system). That was before the security legislation. Sentiment has eased, but not changed.

Authorities’ reluctance to chance a repeat reflects a basic truth: Voting matters, even in a non-democratic or partly democratic system, where elections are often seen as hollow political theater.

Hong Kong’s government doesn’t have quite the same pretense as the former Soviet states, or Russia, where President Vladimir Putin requires mass demonstrations of popular adulation. Neither can it afford to hold controlled competitive elections as Singapore does. It does, though, crave popular support, as seen by the flurry of advertisements, appeals and petitions as the government sought to claim approval for the national security law.

Official nervousness isn’t without reason. Elections, however partial and even without real opposition, can bolster non-democratic governments. They can also bring instability. A 2015 University of Oslo study of 259 autocracies found election years were associated with an increased probability of regime breakdown in the short term. Take a glance at Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term as president. The country is witnessing the largest pro-opposition rallies ever, even after the government silenced the media and hounded most opposition voices.

Hong Kong’s government has now created an even bigger problem for itself. There is no clearly determined path after elections are postponed and candidates disqualified. Does the legislature simply stay on, and if so what happens to lawmakers who have been barred from running again? The Basic Law, after all, clearly stipulates a term of four years, which is ending.

By doing all this just as it cracks down on even teenage activists and removes library books, authorities are also blocking all release valves for public discontent. The risk, says Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University, who studies elections in authoritarian states, is that bottled-up anger eventually erupts.

Hong Kong's rapid dismantling of its institutions has been unparalleled. Even Putin took years to mount his assault. Add in the background of a grim economic situation and the mishandling of a public health emergency, and the alarm among international businesses is only likely to grow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

Matthew Brooker is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. He previously was a columnist, editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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