Public opinion polls which ask Hongkongers whether they plan to vote in the upcoming Legislative Council (LegCo) election may be illegal in some circumstances, according to the head of the anti-corruption watchdog, after a local pollster came under fire from Beijing-backed media for “inciting and misleading” citizens.
Simon Peh, Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), told TVB News on Monday he could not rule out the possibility that the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) may breach the law by publishing results of its surveys on the December 19 election, including how voters intend to cast their ballots.
The legislative poll will be the first since Beijing ordered sweeping electoral changes to ensure only “patriots” rule Hong Kong. Traditional opposition parties put forward no candidates, while most democrats have either fled Hong Kong, have quit politics, been disqualified or are behind bars.
Authorities are eager to ensure a satisfactory voter turnout and recent legislation has made it a crime to encourage others not to vote or to cast spoilt ballots.
Peh said the ICAC did not know what kind of information PORI was set to announce or how the organisation conducts its polls. He said authorities need to make an “overall consideration” in deciding the legality of the questionnaires by PORI, but refused to say whether the watchdog has consulted the Department of Justice.
“Of course we don’t know the information yet to be published, and whether there is [content] related to inciting others not to vote or cast invalid ballots,” Peh said.
“If the published opinion poll has this nature, it may breach section 27A of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance,” he added.
On Monday, the ICAC issued arrest warrants for former lawmaker Ted Hui and ex-district councillor Yau Man-chun for inciting others not to vote or to cast an invalid vote in the LegCo polls on social media. Hui and Yau are currently based in Australia and the UK respectively.
Separately, three people were apprehended in Hong Kong earlier this month on suspicion of committing the same offence by sharing an online post that appealed for blank and invalid votes. They were released on ICAC bail.
Peh’s comment came a week after PORI drew severe criticism from state-controlled newspaper Ta Kung Pao, following its first round of survey results on the “patriots only” election” released on November 23.
The random telephone survey found that only around 50 per cent of Hongkongers are inclined to vote in the revamped general election – a record low since similar surveys were first conducted in 1991.
The general public will elect only 20 out of the 90 seats in the legislature, while the rest will be selected by special sectors and the 1,500-seat pro-Beijing Election Committee.
PORI also released findings last Friday from a focus group study involving 5,496 registered voters, who indicated how they incline to vote through an online survey. They were given four options when stating their intentions – voting for a particular candidate; casting a blank or an invalid vote; not voting; or undecided/hard to say.
Among the 290 respondents who identified as voters in the New Territories North, 16 per cent said they are likely to submit a blank or void ballot, the highest ratio among the 10 redefined geographical constituencies. Nearly half of the respondents in the same district said they would not take part in the voting.
Ta Kung Pao slammed PORI for “inciting and misleading” citizens, saying their surveys could abet those who intend to “disrupt Hong Kong.”
Pro-Beijing heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung said on Commercial Radio on Tuesday that if the government believes opinion polls on the election are problematic, the authorities would take action or issue a warning. The sole Hong Kong delegate to Beijing’s top legislative body added such polls could affect the behaviour of other voters.
PORI’s deputy CEO Chung Kim-wah told HKFP on Tuesday the organisation “had no stance” and has never encouraged people to cast their ballots in any particular way. He said similar survey questions were asked during the last LegCo election in 2016.
Chung said that when designing a questionnaire, the pollster should provide all possible options for respondents to choose from. With regard to voting intentions, blank votes and void ballots should be among the choices, he said.
“The government has confirmed that these possibilities exist, otherwise they wouldn’t make a law to ban people from inciting others to cast blank votes,” he said.
The PORI vice-chief said the institute would announce results of two more telephone surveys and three rounds of focus group studies. Some survey questions may be adjusted in light of the sweeping electoral changes passed in May, he said.
Asked if PORI was under pressure due to attacks from Beijing-backed media, Chung dismissed the accusations against it as “totally baseless,” saying the authorities would have acted if there was evidence to back up those claims. He also denied complaints about the transparency of PORI’s funding, saying the group had organised one crowdfunding campaign only.
“If it is just political labelling and slandering, we will not respond to them,” he said, adding PORI would continue to conduct polls on the election and other public opinion surveys.
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