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Hong Kong opposition lawmakers forced to regroup after split poll

Call for boycott to protest against election delay fails to win majority support

Wu Chi-wai (front row, second from left), chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, attends a news conference on Sept. 29 to discuss results of a survey over a Legislative Council boycott.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong faced the prospect of having to examine their political path forward after a citywide poll on Tuesday showed that their supporters were divided over calls for a collective boycott in response to the government's move to postpone legislative elections.

After activists called for members of the pro-democracy camp to resign from Hong Kong's Legislative Council rather than remain in an extended term for another year, the camp asked their supporters in a survey to decide whether the lawmakers should remain in the de facto parliament or resign in protest against the delayed elections.

But since neither side won majority support, pro-democracy lawmakers said they were free to decide their own future in the legislature. Still, the lack of clarity was a setback.

Poll results released showed that 47.1% of the pro-democracy group's self-identified supporters preferred that the lawmakers serve in the extended legislature term after the Hong Kong government evoked emergency powers to postpone this month's Legislative Council elections for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, 45.8% of those surveyed wanted the group of pro-democracy lawmakers to boycott the chamber.

Because neither side received the majority support required for pro-democracy lawmakers to make a binding decision, the bloc needed to "resort to a political judgment," said Wu Chi-wai, chairman of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building. The question of whether pro-democracy legislators should keep their seats for an extended term had triggered a heated debate among their supporters.   © AP

At least 15 out of 22 lawmakers from the pro-democracy camp had earlier pledged to resign if more than half of their supporters called for the move in the survey.

"We have decided to continue to serve in the Legislative Council... It was a tough decision," Wu said at a press conference. "We know we cannot make a decision that satisfies all our supporters, but we will try our best to listen to all opinions when we continue our work in the council."

The question of whether legislators should keep their seats during the provisional term following the election postponement had triggered heated debate among the supporters of pro-democracy politicians. While moderate lawmakers favored staying in the 70-member chamber to keep the government in check, younger members of the camp had increasingly called for a collective boycott to protest against the Beijing-appointed government.

"The poll results indicate that pro-democracy camp supporters are still largely divided over this issue and there is a lack of consensus within the camp," Gary Tang, an assistant professor at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, told Nikkei Asia.

"This will pose a challenge to pro-democracy lawmakers going forward to build trust with their supporters," Tang said. "They will have to convince voters how their stay will help Hong Kong's democracy movement in the future."

China's top lawmaking body, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said in August that all members of Hong Kong's legislature, including four sitting pro-democracy lawmakers who had been disqualified from running for reelection, would retain their seats for "not less than" another year. That decision was seen as a compromise gesture by Beijing.

The survey, jointly conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was commissioned by the Democratic Party to help gauge supporters' sentiment. A total of 2,579 Hong Kong residents were polled via phone calls over the past week, of whom some 700 identified as supporters of the pro-democracy camp.

Only those voters who backed the pro-democracy side were eligible for the survey in order to prevent what the lawmakers described as "deliberate interference" by pro-Beijing elements.

In an earlier online survey by the research institute, more than 60% of the pro-democracy camp's supporters said the lawmakers should boycott the coming legislative term -- which begins on Oct. 14 -- while 19% said they should remain in the Legislative Council.

So far, three pro-democracy lawmakers have said they will leave the Legislative Council this week. Tanya Chan of the Civic Party on Tuesday decided to resign from the legislature following the poll results, citing "personal reasons."

Meanwhile, on the eve of the release of the poll results, two other pro-democracy legislators had already declared that they would not serve during the provisional term.

As he submitted letters to the Legislative Council secretariat on Monday, pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan Chi-chuen said he would boycott the extended legislative session because it is not constitutionally legitimate. The Basic Law -- the city's constitution -- stipulates terms of four years for legislative councilors.

In a Facebook post on Monday, pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said he will continue to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting for freedom, democracy and justice in Hong Kong even though he will quit the council.

"What Hong Kong people deserve is an earlier resumption of an election, not more endorsement by the Chinese Communist Party," Chu told reporters on Monday after rendering his decision. "This is an appointed legislature, rather than a legislature elected by the people."

Prior to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's move to postpone the Sept. 6 legislative poll, citing concerns over the pandemic, more than 600,000 people had participated in the pro-democracy camp's primary election, hoping to choose the strongest candidates for the group to win a majority of seats for the first time and boost the bloc's leverage against the government.

The huge turnout, however, prompted Beijing to step up its suppression of opposition figures in the former British colony. The Hong Kong government disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates, including activist Joshua Wong and the four sitting lawmakers, from the election.

Opposition hopefuls Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung Kwan-yang, who both have actively engaged in international advocacy work for Hong Kong's democratic movement and lobbied foreign governments to sanction local officials, have fled the city in light of a new national security law.

The security law, imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing at the end of June, carries criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment for those found guilty of separatism, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign powers.

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