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Monday, Aug 10, 2020

Hong Kong’s looming Legco vacuum sparks debate in Lam’s inner circle

Executive Council member Ronny Tong says emergency sessions could bridge gap, while People’s Congress deputy Ip Kwok-him sees ‘caretaker legislature’ as inevitable.
Hong Kong should fill in the legal blanks arising from the postponement of the Legislative Council elections on its own, a top government top adviser urged on Saturday, though a colleague, who also serves as a delegate to the national legislature, suggested Beijing should appoint who it likes for a provisional term.

The split highlighted the differences among city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s closest circle over how best to sail through the political storm that has followed the chief executive’s Friday announcement that the government was invoking the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance to postpone the quadrennial polls for a year.

One key question was who would act as lawmakers during the one-year vacuum, given that the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, requires an official term last four years.

Lam said she had already written to the State Council in Beijing seeking counsel without offering her own proposal.

But Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of Lam’s Executive Council and a former Bar Association chairman, argued Beijing’s involvement could be kept to a minimum, if the government was willing to rely solely on existing local electoral law.

“The minimal move would be allowing the Hong Kong government to invoke the Legislative Ordinance’s section 11 and call only emergency meetings,” Tong said.

The ordinance would allow the outgoing Legco president, at the request of the chief executive, to convene emergency sessions with exiting members, although the chamber would not be fully functional.

But Tong added: “I don’t think a vacuum would be a big deal. Legco had been almost paralysed for the past seven months anyway.” He was referring to the past year of anti-government protests and opposition camp filibustering aimed at delaying passage of the national anthem law.

National People’s Congress deputy Ip Kwok-him, however, believes there is little room to manoeuvre.

An executive councillor himself, Ip said Article 69 of the Basic Law clearly states that each Legco term lasts four years, making it difficult to extend lawmakers’ tenure without amending the mini-constitution, a time-consuming and even more controversial move.

He suggested instead that the standing committee of Beijing’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, appoint a “caretaker legislature” for the interim period, though he stressed this legislature should have less power, and hold only urgent meetings, as it would lack a voter mandate.

“The members may include all incumbent lawmakers, but as the NPCSC [National People’s Congress Standing Committee] holds the appointment power, it could appoint outsiders or get rid of those who are disqualified from seeking re-election,” he said.

Lam herself has said she would prefer to see outgoing lawmakers have their terms extended.

Ma Fung-kwok, also an NPC deputy, believed it was up to the NPCSC to decide whether to appoint members for a provisional Legco or extend the terms of those now in office.

Like Ip, he noted the latter method demanded an interpretation of Basic Law article 69.

But Ma said one perk of an extension would be that lawmakers would have extra time to pass pending laws from the previous term, including a long-delayed bill on a mandatory waste disposal charge, a proposed ban on e-cigarettes, and a HK$550 million funding request for studies related to the controversial Lantau Tomorrow Vision project.

Pro-establishment heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the national legislature’s standing committee, agreed that a provisional Legco could be one way out, but ruled out executive councillor Tong’s suggestion of holding emergency sessions.

“The government would not have called for the NPCSC to step in [if they were going to do that],” Tam said.

Bar Association vice-chairwoman Anita Yip, meanwhile, suggested it was not necessary to commit to a full year’s delay, as section 44 of the Legislative Council Ordinance allows the chief executive to postpone the election every 14 days.

If the city could instead hold an election in November or December, she said, just two to three months after the current Legco term expires in September, the vacuum would be much briefer.

Former lawmaker Alan Leong Ka-kit, chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party, also advised against seeking Beijing’s help and said the Hong Kong government should find a way to “preserve the constitutional order”.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principle law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, warned an appointment system could mean a legislature without an opposition.
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