Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced the postponement of highly-anticipated legislative elections by a year, citing a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Hong Kong government is invoking an emergency regulations ordinance in delaying the elections. Ms Lam said the government has the support of the Chinese government in making the decision.
“The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in the past seven months,” Ms Lam said at a news conference.
“We want to ensure fairness and public safety and health, and need to make sure the election is held in an open, fair and impartial manner. This decision is therefore essential,” she said.
The postponement will be felt as a setback for the pro-democracy opposition, which was hoping to capitalise on disenchantment with the current pro-Beijing majority to make gains. A group of 22 legislators issued a statement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote.
“Incumbent pro-democracy legislators, who represent 60% of the public’s opinion, collectively oppose the postponement and emphasise the responsibility of the SAR government to make every effort to arrange adequate anti-epidemic measures to hold elections in September as scheduled,” the statement said, referring to the territory’s official name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
“Otherwise, it is tantamount to uprooting the foundation of the establishment of the SAR.”
The city of 7.5 million people has seen a surge in coronavirus infections since the beginning of July. Hong Kong had recorded more than 3,100 cases as of Thursday, more than double the tally on July 1.
The government has tightened social distancing restrictions, limiting public gatherings to two people, and banned dining-in at restaurants after 6pm.
The lead-up to the election, originally scheduled for September 6, has been closely watched after a national security law that took effect in late June stipulated that candidates who violated the law would be barred from running.
The new law is seen as Beijing’s attempt to curb dissent in the city, after months of pro-democracy and anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year.
On Thursday, 12 pro-democracy candidates including prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong were disqualified from running for not complying with the city’s constitution or pledging allegiance to the local and national governments.
At a news conference on Friday, Mr Wong said: “Beyond any doubt, this is the most scandalous election ever in Hong Kong history. I wish to emphasise that no reasonable man would think that this election ban is not politically driven.”
“Beijing has staged multiple acts to prevent the opposition bloc from taking the majority in the Hong Kong legislature,” he said.
The elections could be deferred for up to a year, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, which cited unnamed sources.