It seems that our colonial masters attach great importance to public opinion, even while they are avoiding giving the public what it clearly wants.

The People’s running dogs, and the running dogs’ running dogs, are all being mobilised to assure us all that keeping the existing Legislative Council (LegCo) for an unconstitutional extra year is essential for public safety and perfectly legal, even though it is clearly neither.

Police barriers on Legislative Council Road. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP

We are also offered the enticing prospect of four existing legislators, who were proposing to run again but were disqualified by government officials, having their disqualification backdated to the last election and being hoofed from their seats.

What seems to be overlooked here is the question of by-elections. The law on this matter surfaced last January when the Electoral Affairs Commission decided that it was too late in the current LegCo’s term to hold two by-elections, even though these were required by the Basic Law.

The commission’s excuse was that it would be so difficult to hold two by-elections that, by the time they were held, there would be less than four months of the legislature’s term left. The Basic Law says that a by-election must be held whenever there is a vacancy, but it will not be needed if LegCo has only four months left in its term of office. The commission came to this conclusion in January, when there were nine months to go, leaving five months unaccounted for.

The idea that it takes six months to prepare a by-election is nonsense. For many years the average was three months, though it has slipped of late.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Anyway, this excuse will clearly now not wash. If the existing LegCo is to be prolonged for another year then the two by-elections become a legal requirement. Similarly, it must follow, if four other legislators are purged for some reason the resulting vacancies will have to be filled by further by-elections.

We can all see what the excuses will be. First of all, there is the virus. Other places have managed to hold mass elections without causing a fresh outbreak. Also, the idea that cases will still be running at the current level for a year is alarming and necessarily unsubstantiated.

A second complaint is that holding elections under present circumstances would be unfair because Hongkongers caught in Shenzhen or overseas could not come back to vote. It is difficult to believe that there are thousands of people who would take the trouble and incur the expense of coming back specially for the election, but there is an answer to this problem which other countries and territories manage quite easily: postal voting.

We have to thank the Electoral Affairs Commission for putting its shoulder to the wheel and coming up with another reason for delaying the polls. The commission, it says, will have to train thousands of people for their roles in the election and does not know how to do this without exposing them to the hazards of infection in the classroom.

This is so feeble that one wonders at the ability of officials to wheel it out with a straight face. Firstly the claim that thousands of people have to be trained is clearly bogus. Hong Kong has been holding elections for years. Doing so is not so complicated that people have to learn it from scratch each time. There must be thousands of civil servants who know the routine backwards.

Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

And if training must be provided, what of that? Schools all over Hong Kong are exercising their ingenuity and persistence to find ways of teaching people without packing them into a classroom. If you can teach everything from the alphabet to zoology over the internet why not election procedures?

With all respect to the people who do it, it’s not rocket science. No doubt the government has other reasons for postponing the election, like the prospect of taking another pasting from the voters. But the Electoral Affairs Commission shouldn’t be one of them.

They can hold an election if they really want to. The qualities required are determination, flexibility and ingenuity. Unfortunately, it has been evident for a long time that these are not in the commission’s armoury.

We have democracy designed by people who don’t like democracy, featuring elections run by people who don’t like elections, presided over by lawmakers in Beijing who don’t like laws.

Maybe we should go back to a LegCo chosen and appointed by the government. Then at least we shall all know where we are. The pretence that the government regards elections as anything other than a few bits of grit in the smooth working of imperial administration is looking a bit threadbare.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.