Hong Kong should weigh delaying leader's election, lawmaker says

Mr Tam Yiu-chung said that potential candidates might need to focus on containing the current Covid-19 outbreak. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong should consider postponing the city's leadership election next month, a senior Chinese lawmaker said, in the most high-profile call yet for suspending the vote amid a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Mr Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole representative on China's top legislative body, told a radio programme Thursday (Feb 17) that potential candidates might need to focus on containing the outbreak.

The National People's Congress deputy cited remarks by President Xi Jinping, reported the previous day, instructing the city's leaders to make fighting the pandemic their top priority.

"The chief executive election might affect some potential candidates who might have responsibilities in anti-epidemic work," Mr Tam told Commercial Radio, adding a study of alternative arrangements should be made.

The National People's Congress is expected to hold its annual session on March 5 in Beijing, providing lawmakers an opportunity to discuss the issue.

The March 27 election for the post now held by Chief Executive Carrie Lam is the first planned under a Beijing-drafted system that barred most opposition activists from participating and restricted the vote to a committee of 1,500 representing 0.02 per cent of the city's population.

Mrs Lam, who hasn't yet said whether she intends to seek a second five-year term, told reporters Tuesday that plans to hold an election "remain the same."

The nomination window is set to open Sunday.

Although Hong Kong's leader has been selected by a committee dominated by Beijing loyalists since the city's return to Chinese rule in 1997, candidates have traditionally run public campaigns resembling democratic elections.

China pledged to work toward a system that selects the leader "by universal suffrage," but pro-democracy lawmakers blocked Beijing's proposal in 2015 because it would require the committee to screen the candidates.

China’s legislature may prefer to extend the current term of the Hong Kong government instead of delaying the chief executive election, Mr Ip Kwok-him, a member of the National People’s Congress’s broader body, told the local media outlet i-Cable Thursday.

Under the election guidelines, if no one candidate has been validly put forward after the nomination period ends, then a new election date can be set 42 days later.   

While this method exists, Mr Ip said "it’s more likely" that if the National People’s Congress adds this to their agenda – like they did with the Legislative Council election – then they will then make a decision.

"It’s more constitutionally appropriate." 

A delay would represent the second time in two years that Hong Kong's leaders prioritised public safety over a democratic exercise, as Beijing reins in dissent.

City authorities cited the risk of outbreaks to delay a September 2020 legislative election, only to subsequently arrest dozens of opposition leaders on allegations of waging a subversive plot against the government and rewrite election laws to exclude many pro-democracy activists from seeking office.

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Back then, Hong Kong had logged a little over a 100 virus cases. On Thursday alone, the city was expected to report about 5,000, local media including the Hong Kong Economic Times reported.

This week, Mr Xi called on Hong Kong to take "all necessary measures" to contain the Covid surge.

Mrs Lam said her government would follow Mr Xi's instructions, leveraging support from Beijing, and bear overall responsibility for stabilising the outbreak.

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