The COVID-19 pandemic, like all other crises, has the potential to be an enormous threat to democracy. UK local and mayoral elections and Hong Kong Legislative Council elections have both been postponed for a year. Donald Trump has even suggested postponing the American presidential election. Past experience suggests we should be wary of these delays.
Crises have often provided excuses for governments to increase their powers and subvert democracy. After the tragedy of 9/11 in the United States, the American government massively increased surveillance powers. 9/11 also facilitated the War on Terror, which led to disastrous wars in Afghanistan from 2001 and in Iraq from 2003. Democratic norms and processes were eroded in the name of public security. Many members of Congress were reluctant to speak out against the expansion of government powers for fear of being seen as unpatriotic.
Similarly, the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 allowed Erdogan to impose a two-year state of emergency with sweeping powers to stifle dissent. Since this emergency rule was declared, more than 150,000 civil servants have been purged and 77,000 people suspected of links to the coup charged. As such, crises are fertile opportunities for democracies to permanently change the government’s scope of power. The COVID-19 crisis is no different.
Despite the precedent set by these alarming examples, the UK likely does not have too much to worry about. It has a strong tradition of democracy; and Boris Johnson does not have that much of an authoritarian streak. Local and mayoral elections are also relatively less significant. Turnout was a mere 35% in 2018.
However, the postponing of Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong is far more distressing. The Legislative Council, or LegCo for short, is equivalent to the UK’s Houses of Parliament. LegCo elections are the largest in Hong Kong. The delay comes in the face of the recent National Security Law, which intends to prevent, stop and punish acts in Hong Kong that threaten national security. Such actions include secessionist and subversive activity, together with foreign interference and terrorism. But, many are also afraid this law will be used in a blanket manner for Beijing to purge dissenters. Beijing had previously used similar laws to purge mainland dissidents. The law could be used to bar opposition activists from running in elections on the grounds of sedition, eliminating localist or pro-independence candidates.
This fear has already become a reality. Just two weeks ago, 12 pro-democracy figures were disqualified from standing as candidates in the LegCo election on the grounds that they do not respect the Basic Law of Hong Kong. This may be the first step towards the gradual erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. Postponing elections in the name of COVID-19 sets a dangerous precedent, allowing the Hong Kong government to change the dates of elections provided there is a somewhat justifiable reason to do so. We Hongkongers must not let this slide and allow our government to use public health as an excuse to undermine dearly-held democratic freedoms.
Even though turning up to vote might genuinely pose a health risk, postponing elections is not the only option. Postal voting can also work, and has worked very well in the UK in the past. 18% of votes in the 2017 Parliamentary Election were postal votes, a steady increase from previous years. Mandating everyone to register and to vote through the post should not be too difficult for most individuals, though the UK government has to make sure those with relatively limited access to technology are able to vote. This will actually improve democracy. Having more individuals registered for postal ballots will allow them to vote by post in subsequent elections as well. This decreases the future opportunity cost of voting and will likely increase turnout in the long run. Similarly, postal voting should also be implemented in Hong Kong instead of delaying the elections. The Hong Kong government recently had a scheme of distributing HKD 10,000 (around £1000) to all adult citizens, and another project which distributed reusable masks to those who had registered online. If they are able to do that, mandating online registration and allowing online voting should also be possible.
History has taught us that crises can be a powerful tool wielded by governments to increase their power. We must prevent the pandemic from being used in such a way. Postponing elections might just seem like a one-off, genuinely benevolent action, but it could set a terrible precedent and lead to democratic backsliding, especially in places where democracy is already under threat. We must not let this slide.