Legislative Council disqualifications shift the balance of power in Hong Kong
The court ruling disqualifying four lawmakers from the legislature could let pro-government members rewrite the rule book of the chamber
The removal of four opposition lawmakers on Friday over improper oath-taking has further crippled the democratic bloc in terms of its already limited veto power in Hong Kong’s divided legislature.
That gives the government’s allies the opportunity to capitalise on their strength in the Legislative Council and change the rule book to stop filibustering, a tactic often used by the pan-democrats to block controversial bills.
The fallout from the unseating of “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu Chung-yim, which was orchestrated by the previous administration, will also pose tough challenges to Hong Kong’s new leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
She had vowed to improve relations between the city’s executive and the legislative branches, which turned sour under her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying. But she now faces what the pan-democrats are calling “all out war” after Friday’s court ruling in favour of the government.
The removal of the four would weaken the democratic camp’s “resistance” level, according to Leung Kwok-hung.
“The burden on our [remaining] colleagues to monitor the government will be heavier”, the veteran activist said.
Legco comprises 70 lawmakers, half of whom are returned by direct elections in the geographical constituencies and the other half through the trade-based functional constituencies with a much smaller electorate.
Government bills only need a simple majority to be passed in Legco, where the pan-democrats, hold a slightly more than one-third minority. They have only been able to block major bills – such as the one on constitutional reform – which require a two-thirds majority to pass.
Another limited veto power held by the pan-democratic camp has to do with their edge in the geographical constituencies. Because lawmakers’ motions and bill amendments need a majority in both constituencies to pass, pan-democrats, holding a majority of directly elected seats, can block their rivals’ submissions, including amendments to Legco’s rule book that can stop filibustering.
Friday’s court ruling has reduced the number of geographical seats held by pan-democrats to 14, while their rivals have 16.
Pro-Beijing legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said her camp had always wanted to change the rules to restrict filibustering, but it was not necessarily the priority.
Lau Siu-kai, a political commentator and vice-chairman of a semi-official think tank, cautioned that any attempt to alter the rules could hurt Carrie Lam’s relations with pan-democrats.
“The pro-Beijing bloc needs to think about whether doing so will give the public an impression they are exploiting the pan-democrats’ misfortune,” Lau said.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung urged Lam to intervene in the legal action as it was initiated by her predecessor, something she was quick to rule out.
Another major issue is when by-elections should be held to fill the seats left vacant, as that could also affect the pan-democrats’s chances of recouping their losses.
Two more seats have been left vacant by two pro-independence lawmakers who were disqualified last year. The government wants to wait until the entire judicial process – appeals and all – is over.
Lau said a by-election for just the first two seats would be work to the pan-democrats’s advantage because of a single-seat, single-vote system, as their camp has always won the popular vote.
But if those two seats were lumped together with the remaining four for by-election, the pan-democrats might not be able to regain all the six seats they lost.
Two of the disqualified lawmakers hailed from Kowloon West and two others from New Territories East, and it could be difficult for them to secure both seats in the same constituency.
The four disqualified lawmakers have vowed to appeal – what does this involve?
They need to file their appeal with the Court of Appeal by next month.
A defendant or plaintiff can also lodge an appeal directly with the Court of Final Appeal after the Court of First Instance’s ruling, if it involves “significant legal issues”.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, ex-legislator and former chairman of the Bar Association, said it was unlikely the four would go straight to the top court. “There is no significant legal issue involved [in the ruling]. The judge made the ruling based on factual judgments, and it does not seem to meet the requirement,” Tong said.
When will the appeal court deal with the case?
Disqualified lawmakers-elect Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching will make their case at the Court of Final Appeal on August 25 – nine months after they were stripped of their seats by the Court of First Instance.
University of Hong Kong principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming said it was likely the Court of Appeal would handle the appeal of the four – Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu Chung-yim – after the top court ruled on Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau’s case.
Is there any chance that the six cases can be bundled at the top court?
Tong said while a party involved in a case can ask for his or her case to be bundled with a similar case, he agreed with Cheung that this would be unlikely as the cases were at different judicial stages.
The Court of Final Appeal will handle Sixtus Leung and Yau’s case in August, while the four has yet to file an appeal to the Court of Appeal yet, Cheung noted.
When will by-elections be held and where?
A spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said notice must be placed in the Legislative Council’s gazette declaring the vacancy of seats within 21 days of becoming aware of it. The spokesman added that the Electoral Affairs Commission would consider factors such as manpower arrangements, procurement of venues for use as polling stations and economical use of public money.
Tong said it would be financially more practical for the government to wait for a final ruling on the four before organising by-elections for all six in one go.