HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The Hong Kong government is considering postponing the upcoming legislative elections, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported, after a sudden surge in coronavirus cases raised new questions about the September vote.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's advisory Executive Council was expected to meet on Tuesday (July 28) to discuss postponing the Sept 6 legislative elections, the Hong Kong Economic Times said, citing people it did not identify.
An announcement could come later in the day, the paper said.
The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The election would be Hong Kong’s first since China’s imposition of sweeping national security legislation, a move that raised the pro-democracy camp’s concerns that it would be used to disqualify its candidates from September’s vote. The opposition has hoped to ride the momentum of its landslide victory in last November’s District Council elections to a majority in the legislature.
“Increasingly, it’s looking challenging to hold the election,” Mr Bernard Chan, the convener of the Executive Council and a top adviser to Mrs Lam, said in an interview on Monday.
“It’s not like September is going to be any better. I just can’t imagine things will be better and not worse than now, so we have to prepare for the worst.”
Calls for delaying the Legislative Council elections have been growing in recent days, with outbreak-control measures making traditional campaigning increasingly difficult. On Monday, Hong Kong announced that it would limit public gatherings to no more than two people starting on Wednesday.
The report comes after more than half a million Hong Kong residents voted in the opposition’s unofficial primary elections earlier this month, defying government warnings and a rise in Covid-19 cases.
“Our bottom line is that we want to hold a safe election, an orderly, fair, and just election, but the virus is really an important factor that we cannot neglect,” Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, said in response to a question on the election at a Monday briefing on virus measures.
“We will closely monitor the situation and consider all factors. We will make announcements at an appropriate time," he said.
A postponement of the sensitive election, even for public health reasons, could prompt further criticism of the government or more protests. Even before the recent rise in cases – which reached 2,778 on Monday, after six days straight of more than 100 daily cases – democracy advocates were accusing the government of using virus-related social distancing measures to quell protests across the former British colony.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong, one of several aspiring opposition candidates whp have been queried by electoral offers about past political statements, accused the government of trying to stifle the city’s democracy by disqualifying democracy advocates, or delaying or cancelling the vote.
“Using pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie,” Wong wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday. “But the govt knows only to interfere with the election that used to be free and fair, either disqualifying my candidacy or to call off the election.”
A delay would mark a reversal for Mrs Lam, who said last Sunday that there would be no changes made to the vote.
“The election is a solemn matter and cannot be amended as one pleases,” she said. “I can only say that at this moment, no one can tell me how the virus situation would evolve.”
A delay would also pose legal challenges. By law, the city’s chief executive is allowed to delay the election – for reasons such as typhoons, riots or public health emergencies – but a new election date must be chosen for within two weeks of the original date. Rules stipulate that the election cannot be delayed twice.
In May, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced it would make contingency arrangements for the election to be adjourned to Sept 13.
Under the current rules, legislators lose the legal right to hold public office past September. Serving beyond their mandated four-year terms would require a constitutional amendment to the Basic Law, said Associate Professor Ma Ngok from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.