Hong Kong is to postpone September’s legislative election by one year owing to a resurgence in untraceable coronavirus cases, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Friday.
The leader will invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to hold off the vote – a decision she said was supported by Beijing.
“The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult one I have had to make in the past seven months,” she said at a press conference. “It is a really tough decision to delay the election, but we want to ensure public safety and health, and to make sure the elections are held in an open and impartial manner. The decision is therefore essential.”
The unprecedented delay came amid added scrutiny over the disqualification of at least a dozen democratic hopefuls the day before. Activists, NGOs and foreign politicians have decried the move as part of a wide-reaching crackdown under Beijing’s newly implemented national security law for the city.
Lam said the exposure of millions of staff and voters, including vulnerable elderly people, to Covid-19 on polling day threatened to overwhelm the city’s public healthcare system. She added some Hong Kong permanent residents were stranded in mainland China and abroad due to travel restrictions, therefore it would be “impossible” for them to return home to vote.
Lam said the airport-adjacent AsiaWorld-Expo was set to hold the central counting station and media centre, but the venue has been turned into a community treatment centre following a high demand for public hospital beds during the outbreak. As such, it would be a major challenge for the government to find a replacement venue in a short period of time, she added.
Asked about a possible lacuna in the legislature due to the election postponement, the chief executive said she could not use her emergency powers to extend the operation of the Legislative Council’s (LegCo) sixth term.
Each LegCo term should only have a duration of four years, according to Article 69 of the Basic Law. The Chinese State Council would refer to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decide on how to handle the “vacuum period” at the local legislation, Lam said.
Responding to a question from HKFP, Lam acknowledged the city should develop online and postal voting to “modernise” electoral arrangements; however, the scale of the pandemic was beyond all expectations.
“It’s not a question of failure to see. I think nobody can anticipate epidemic or pandemic of this scale. This is an occasion for us to realise that there are deficiencies in the current electoral arrangements,” she said.
Earlier on Friday, 22 democrats said the government was conspiring with pro-establishment lawmakers to stall the election, using Covid-19 as an excuse: “The incumbent pro-democracy legislators – who represent the will of 60 per cent of the population – collectively and sternly oppose a postponement,” they said, calling for anti-epidemic arrangements to be rolled out for the race. “Otherwise, it’s tantamount to uprooting the entire basis of the SAR.”
On Tuesday, activist Joshua Wong – now banned from running in the election – tweeted “[u]sing [the] pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie,” adding the government could have closed the border to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Democrats had hoped to replicate last November’s landslide victory at the district council election which saw their candidates nab close to 400 out of 452 seats across 18 districts. Their win crippled the pro-establishment camp’s grip on the local councils.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said on Friday that disqualified candidates would not be eligible for reimbursements of election campaign expenses.
Lam also hit out at critics who said the disqualifications spelt the “the death of a meaningful legislature”: “For any candidate who does not aspire to uphold the Basic Law, or who does not want Hong Kong to be part of the People’s Republic of China, they could not be part of a meaningful legislature.”
Hong Kong has seen an exponential rise in the number of untraceable local coronavirus infections since the start of this month. The case tally stands at 3,151 with 27 related deaths. The authorities revealed the strictest round of social distancing measures yet on Monday, including limiting public gatherings to two people per group and making mask-wearing outdoors mandatory.
First detected in Hubei province, China, the coronavirus has infected nearly 17.3 million people and led to more than 673,200 deaths worldwide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Singapore, France, Ireland and South Korea are among a dozen-odd countries that have successfully taken measures this year to carry out elections during the epidemic. In April, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association Clément Voule said in a statement that – despite the pandemic – democracy cannot be indefinitely postponed, adding that freedom of association and assembly online – as well as freedom of expression – should be ensured.