The Hong Kong government met on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of postponing the city’s legislative elections, but no decision was reached.
While the government has cited concerns over recent spikes in coronavirus cases, the move would deliver a huge blow to opposition democrats who were gearing up for success in the September elections.
Sources speaking to SCMP said that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and members of the Executive Council, her de facto cabinet, would meet again on Friday after nominations for the elections closed.
Lam could decide to postpone the Legislative Council (LegCo) polls if the third wave of coronavirus infections in the city fails to slow, but it is unclear how long the elections would be delayed.
Some sources suspect that the government is considering delaying the LegCo polls by a year, and will likely raise the issue with China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), for its support and more authoritative direction.
According to Chinese state-controlled news agency, Xinhua, the NPCSC are due to meet in Beijing from August 8 to 11, but no Hong Kong-related items were on the agenda.
The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau released a statement saying that it is working closely with the Registration and Electoral Office to prepare for the election. It vowed to “closely keep in touch with the Food and Health Bureau, the Centre for Health Protection and relevant departments to monitor the development of the epidemic and formulate various plans.
“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,” said Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung. “We will closely monitor the situation and consider all factors. We will make announcements at an appropriate time.”
Announcement criticized by opposition
While the government maintains that any decision to postpone the elections would be made on the grounds of protecting public health amid the dramatic flare ups of COVID-19 infections, it still received criticism from opposition politicians.
The pro-democracy camp was anticipating an historic win in the September LegCo polls, as indicated in unofficial polls organized by pro-democracy figures earlier this month. The opposition primaries drew a turnout of around 600,000 people, despite public gathering restrictions during a time of rising COVID-19 infections.
The LegCo polls would be Hong Kong’s first election since Beijing’s imposition of the sweeping national security law.
The contentious and vaguely-worded legislation would punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Opposition politicians have also raised concerns that the law could be used to disqualify candidates from running for government positions if they have previously participated in pro-democracy activities.
Some opposition figures have accused China of seeking a delay because they feared losing.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick accused China of making a “strategic retreat” in a tweet on Tuesday, saying that they wanted to postpone the election to “avoid a potential devastating defeat” and because “they are afraid of further sanctions from the US.”
Democracy activist Joshua Wong, also an aspiring candidate in the elections, accused the government of attempting to stifle the city’s freedoms by disqualifying candidates or delaying the polls.
“Using pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie,” he tweeted.
Wong pointed out that protective measures could be used instead to control the spread of the virus, but “the [government] knows only to interfere with the election that used to be free and fair.”
However, Executive Council member Wong Kwok-kin, a lawmaker of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, said that the elections would not be fair if held in September.
“The opposition camp had a large-scale promotion campaign before this unofficial primary earlier this month, but our camp cannot do anything under the tightened social-distancing measures,” he said, pointing to the illegal nature of the pro-democratic primaries.
So far, Hong Kong has reported about 3,000 coronavirus infections and over 20 deaths. Although it has seen a dramatic surge in recent weeks, the rate is still far lower than in other major cities around the world.
Rival Asian finance hub Singapore, which has reported a more serious coronavirus outbreak, held a general election earlier this month.
Executive Council member Regina Ip Lay Suk-yee pointed to this as she argued that a year’s postponement would create a “legislative vacuum.”
“In Singapore, voters were required to wear masks and gloves as they voted, and the voting hours were also extended. Our government needs to take these necessary precautions as well,” she said.
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at [email protected]