Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced on Friday that the government will postpone highly anticipated legislative elections by one year, citing a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Hong Kong government is invoking an emergency ordinance in delaying the elections. Lam said the Chinese government supported the decision.
“The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in the past seven months,” Lam said at a news conference.
“We want to ensure fairness and public safety and health, and need to make sure the election is held in an open, fair and impartial manner. This decision is therefore essential,” she said.
The postponement is a setback for the pro-democracy opposition, which was hoping to capitalize on disenchantment with the current pro-Beijing majority to make gains. A group of 22 lawmakers issued a statement ahead of the announcement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote.
“Incumbent pro-democracy legislators, who represent 60% of the public’s opinion, collectively oppose the postponement and emphasize the responsibility of the SAR government to make every effort to arrange adequate anti-epidemic measures to hold elections in September as scheduled,” the statement said, referring to the territory’s official name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
“Otherwise, it is tantamount to uprooting the foundation of the establishment of the SAR.”
The city of 7.5 million people has had a surge in coronavirus infections since the beginning of July. Hong Kong has recorded 3,273 infections as of Friday, more than double the tally on July 1.
The government has tightened social distancing restrictions, limiting public gatherings to two people, and banned dining-in at restaurants after 6 p.m.
The lead-up to the elections has been closely watched, after a national security law that took effect in late June stipulated that candidates who violated the law would be barred from running.
The new law is seen as Beijing’s attempt to curb dissent in the city, after months of pro-democracy and anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year.
On Thursday, 12 pro-democracy candidates including prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong were disqualified from running for not complying with the city’s mini-constitution or pledging allegiance to the local and national governments.
“Beyond any doubt, this is the most scandalous election ever in Hong Kong history,” Wong said at a news conference Friday. “I wish to emphasize that no reasonable man would think that this election ban is not politically driven.”
“Beijing has staged multiple acts to prevent the opposition bloc from taking the majority in the Hong Kong legislature,” he said.