HK chief executive election possible as Covid-19 outbreaks sweep city: Observers

Concerns about the growing Covid-19 outbreaks in the community have weighed on the decision to go ahead with the election. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Even as Hong Kong steels itself for a tough fight ahead against the coronavirus amid rising daily infections, political and health experts say the city's planned election in five weeks' time to pick its next leader would likely not be shelved.

Respiratory medicine expert Leung Chi Chiu, who has been monitoring the city's outbreaks, said the election can still go on despite the Omicron-led outbreaks sweeping the city.

"As the number of voters is in the thousands and not millions, the transmission risk should be containable with proper infection control measures," he said, noting that the election would involve far fewer people than the tens of thousands who turn up at vaccination centres to get their Covid-19 shots.

Hong Kong's chief executive is to be picked on March 27 by a 1,500-strong influential Election Committee comprising tycoons, academics and sector leaders.

Concerns about the growing Covid-19 outbreaks in the community have weighed on the decision to go ahead with the election, which is the first such race since Hong Kong's electoral system was revamped so that only "patriots" can run.

In the past month, daily infections have jumped from low two digits to more than 2,000 on Monday (Feb 14), bringing the total Covid-19 infections recorded since the start of the pandemic to more than 25,000, with 223 deaths.

Health authorities have warned that the situation is critical as the daily number of infections is expected to hit 1,500 on Tuesday, with another 5,400 preliminary positive cases waiting for confirmation.

About 10,000 residents with Covid-19 are now staying at home while waiting for hospital beds to free up so they can be admitted, increasing the risks of local transmissions.

The city's testing and isolation capacities are pushed to the limits, but officials believe reinforcements from the mainland would help tide the city over this crunch time.

Some have pointed out that Chief Executive Carrie Lam had in July 2020 invoked emergency powers to postpone the then September Legislative Council elections by a year, due to the rise in Covid-19 infections.

Mrs Lam on Tuesday said that the election plans were unchanged but she did add that given "the severity and speed of this latest wave", the situation would be  reviewed.  Last week, she had said it is much easier to put in place control measures for the election to be conducted in a safe manner given the size of the event.

Dr Lau Siu Kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, Beijing's top think-tank on Hong Kong affairs, said he thinks "the possibility of postponement is very low".

He said the Covid-19 outbreaks in Hong Kong have reached the point where it is difficult for officials to deal with them, and may cause political risks.

But with the support of the central government now, the Hong Kong government can take anti-epidemic measures that it did not want to or dare do in the past, added Dr Lau.

Dr Chung Kim Wah of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute thinks it will not be a "difficult problem" for the government to just book a venue for the voters to cast their ballots.

"In fact, I believe that the venue has already been arranged, as the date and time to stage the show was already decided (to be) March 27.

"There will be no real competition in the process, so once Beijing makes its decision clear, everyone will react accordingly," he said.

Adding to the ambiguity shrouding the election is that there is only one chief executive hopeful who has so far announced his intention to run.

Gongfu master, film producer and Internet celebrity, Mr Checkley Sin Kwok Lam, 64, is the first to throw his hat into the ring.

But the general consensus, both in political circles and according to analysts, is that the political novice is an unlikely opponent.

Various names, including incumbent Mrs Lam, former chief executive Leung Chun Ying and Financial Secretary Paul Chan have been mentioned in recent months as possible candidates.

But Mrs Lam and Mr Chan have not made their intentions clear, while Mr Leung is open to the idea of returning to office.

The unusual silence on this front as the election draws near might point to uncertainty, said Dr Chung.

"I think no one will state openly and clearly that they want to run and campaign until Beijing's intention has been made clear. So everyone is waiting for the decision of the boss," he said.

Last month, the authorities stated that the nomination period would start on Feb 20 and end on March 5, leaving hopefuls with only 22 days to gather support after their candidacies are validated.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.