HONG KONG - In a controversial move that was widely anticipated, the city’s Legislative Council (Legco) election due in September to form a new government will be postponed for a year due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose support levels have hit rock-bottom in the city, announced this on Friday (July 31), putting an end to days of speculation amid the disqualification of a dozen opposition candidates slated to run in the Legco election originally scheduled for Sept 6.
The new date for the election is Sept 5 next year.
The opposition camp had hoped to ride on the wave of the public’s resentment against the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing on June 30 to win big at the Legco election, much like the landslide victory in last November’s district council elections.
In a briefing on Friday evening, Mrs Lam said she would invoke the colonial-era emergency law, used to impose a face mask ban last year, to facilitate the move.
“In these seven months, I’ve had to make some hard choices. But this announcement is the hardest one yet,” she said.
For the 10th day in a row, Hong Kong added more than 100 new infections on Friday at 121, bringing the total confirmed tally to 3,272, including 27 deaths. Of the new cases, 118 were due to local spread and sources of many cases were unknown.
For over a month, local clusters have grown quickly and pressure is mounting on the city’s healthcare systems and Covid-19 testing facilities.
“At this point in time, there’s no way to effectively eradicate this altogether,” Mrs Lam said, adding that the move has the full backing of the central government.
The same day, China’s Foreign Ministry said Hong Kong’s elections are China’s internal affairs and due consideration would be given to the Covid-19 situation.
Earlier in the day, 22 pro-democracy lawmakers blasted the possibility of such a move as a power grab that would trigger a constitutional crisis.
They said in a statement that the postponement is a conspiracy by the government and its supporters, as the government may not do well at the polls.
On July 27, the government further tightened social distancing measures in an attempt to contain local transmissions, including limiting public gatherings to two people, making mask-wearing compulsory and limiting dining-in at eateries.
The election was to be the former British colony’s first democratic exercise since Beijing imposed the security law, which carries a punishment of life imprisonment, against secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government have reassured people that the law affects only an extremely small number of people and would not undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” principle that has been in place since 1997.
They argued that the law is vital to restore order and prosperity after more than half a year of often-violent anti-government protests last year.
But the opposition camp and activists believe the law not only spells the end of the city’s high degree of autonomy but also paves the way for a crackdown on dissent.
And the clearest example, they say, is Thursday’s disqualification from the Lego election of 12 opposition candidates, including activist Joshua Wong and Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka Ki and Alvin Yeung, many of whom oppose the security law.
Mr Wong on Friday called the reasons for his disqualification ridiculous and a “witch-hunt”, accusing election officials of twisting his views so that they can prosecute him under the security law.
He said Legco elections have never been free and fair since 2016, when officials barred his peers like Edward Leung, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow from running.
Civic Party chair Alan Leong warned on Thursday that the party’s two remaining election hopefuls – Jeremy Tam and Gordon Lam – would likely be banned from the polls, as would any backup candidates.
When asked, Associate Professor Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said the disqualification of the pro-democracy candidates comes as the level of support for Beijing and the Hong Kong government is at “record low”, also mirrored in people’s trust towards the “one country, two systems” principle.
“Together with the widespread suspicion and disapproval of the national security law, it is quite natural to conclude that Beijing would like to use the disqualification to preclude the catastrophic result for the pro-Beijing camp,” Prof Sing said.
The scope of the disqualification has been wider than anticipated by many observers, he noted, adding that moderates have also been booted out.
In light of this, Prof Sing said it would be extremely controversial to postpone the election for that long as it would “create all kinds of legitimacy problems”.
But Mr Lau Siu Kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the Legco election “is no longer just Hong Kong’s internal affairs”, but also a national affair that involves national security and questions as to whether external forces have united with the opposition camp to seize power.
“So that prompts Beijing into doing something to prevent the hostile forces from taking over Legco and to make sure that the national security is safeguarded,” he said.