Concern as Hong Kong postpones elections for one year, citing Covid-19

The Hong Kong government has postponed its upcoming elections for one year, citing the growing coronavirus outbreak in the city but sparking immediate accusations that the pandemic was being used as a pretext to suppress democracy.

The city’s leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, announced on Friday she had invoked emergency regulations to delay the 6 September vote, saying it was the “hardest decision I have made in the past seven months”.

Hong Kong is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, with more than 100 daily new cases – mostly community transmissions – and hospital Covid-19 wards at about 80% capacity. Lam said part of the government’s response to the virus was “a willingness to make hard choices”, however she also suggested the social unrest and political instability had contributed to the delay.

“The Legco election is held once every four years and it’s a really tough decision to delay it but we want to ensure public safety and health, and we want to make sure the elections are held in an open fair and impartial manner,” Lam said.

She said the Chinese Central Government supported the decision.

The government’s consideration of a postponement was leaked earlier this week, and was labeled an “assault on fundamental freedoms” amid growing Beijing control over the semi-autonomous region, and coming a day after 12 pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running.

The potential postponement has sparked fury from opposition and pro-democracy groups.

On Friday afternoon, a coalition of pro-democracy legislators accused the government of using the pandemic to delay an election they were looking like losing.

The group said they represented 60% of the population and “collectively and sternly oppose a postponement”.

“We stress that the government has the responsibility to arrange anti-epidemic measures to the full extent of its ability so the September poll can be held as scheduled. Otherwise, it’s tantamount to uprooting the entire basis of the SAR.”

Earlier this week Hong Kong Watch, a pro-democracy group, released comparative data on Hong Kong’s outbreak and that of other countries which have held elections during the pandemic.

Hong Kong is currently reporting between 100 and 150 cases a day, having recorded 2,779 in total. Singapore recorded 451 new cases on the day of its election earlier this month, with a total of 38,965.

“If the Hong Kong government decide to postpone the election by a year, then it is not only totally unnecessary, but an assault on fundamental freedoms,” said Johnny Patterson, director of Hong Kong Watch.

“Other governments have shown that Hong Kong Government do not need to cancel the elections for a year to guard against the public health threat. This decision to consider postponing Legislative Council elections for a year is driven by fear of an opposition pro-democracy majority, and by fears that attempts to disqualify and arrest pro-democracy candidates under the National Security Law will be met by further sanctions from the international community.”

The postponement is the latest event in Hong Kong’s apparent declining democracy.

On 30 June sweeping national security laws came into force, imposed by Beijing outside of Hong Kong’s legislature and with at least 10 people arrested at protests on the first day. Schools, libraries and booksellers have been told to remove books which might breach the new laws, and democratic parties holding pre-election primaries were accused of attempting to rig the election.

This week Hong Kong University legal scholar Benny Tai was sacked by the university council, and four students, aged between 16 and 21 and members of a pro-independence group which disbanded its local branch on the eve of the laws, were arrested. Police said they were arrested on suspicion of organising and inciting secession through comments made on social media posts after the law came in.

On Thursday, 12 opposition figures, including incumbent legislators, veteran politicians, and high profile activist Joshua Wong, were disqualified from running in the September polls.

The electoral office ruled entries invalid on the basis that some had previously called for foreign governments to sanction Beijing and Hong Kong, and this breached the national security law, or had pledged to block government bills if they won a majority – a result that was increasingly seen as likely.

“Our resistance will continue on and we hope the world can stand with us in the upcoming uphill battle,” 23-year-old Wong told reporters on Friday.

“Beyond any doubt (this) is the most scandalous election fraud era in Hong Kong history,” he said.

Asked if he feared for his own safety, Wong instead called for the release of the four students.

“I urge the world to put the global spotlight on the other activists arrested and being detained,” he said, adding he feared they could be extradited to China.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong said on Thursday the disqualifications were “an outrageous political purge of Hong Kong’s democrats”.

“The National Security law is being used to disenfranchise the majority of Hong Kong’s citizens. It is obviously now illegal to believe in democracy, although this was what Beijing promised in and after the Joint Declaration. This is the sort of behaviour that you would expect in a police state.”

The Guardian

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