Hong Kong’s one-year delay of elections due to COVID-19 raises concern


Opposition and pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong accused the pro-Beijing government of suppressing democracy in the territory by postponing the upcoming September elections for one year.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, citing the growing coronavirus outbreak, announced on Friday she had invoked colonial-era emergency regulations to delay the September 06 vote to September 05, 2021, saying it was the “hardest decision I have made in the past seven months”.

“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.

Hong Kong is 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” adding she have the full support of the Chinese central government.

While having largely kept the virus under control after it first reached Hong Kong in January, the government has been criticised for fumbling numerous aspects of its response, particularly in this so-called third wave. However, the current outbreak appears to be waning and, when asked why then the election was being postponed, Lam pointed to the rising numbers in the rest of the world.

Lam said she and her colleagues had consulted with the World Health Organization on the decision, and she delivered a statistics-heavy list of the risks in having millions of voters and polling staff gathering on one day. She also said many residents were stranded outside Hong Kong amid border closures.

Lam also dismissed comparisons with other countries that have held elections amid worse outbreaks. She said only 49 countries or areas had gone ahead with their votes during the pandemic, while 68 had to delay, giving as an example an Australian local council election.

“So you can say there are more places or countries delaying their elections than proceeding as scheduled.”

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

“Postponing the September elections for a year is a cynical move to contain a political emergency, not a public health one,” said Sophie Richardson of the charity Human Rights Watch.

“This simply allows Carrie Lam to deny Hong Kong people their right to choose their government. Without making any attempt to look at alternative methods of voting, or ensuring all voting rights will be respected, Lam and her backers in Beijing are merely masking repression under the guise of public health.”

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”.

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 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, the director of Hong Kong Watch. (Source: The Guardian)