In an evening press conference yesterday, 31 July, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the postponement of the upcoming Legislative Council election by a year. With an expected three million-person voter turnout, Lam voiced health concerns amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. The New York Times quoted the leader as saying, “It is a really tough decision to delay, but we want to ensure fairness, public safety, and public health.” The polls, which were scheduled to take place on 6 September, would have been the city’s first since the controversial national security law came into effect in late June.
Lam’s move follows the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy candidates nominees, among whom are high profile activist Joshua Wong, and incumbent lawmakers Alvin Yeung and Dennis Kwok. The Hong Kong government cited “perceived subversive intentions, opposition to a new national security law, and campaigning to win a legislation-blocking majority,” as reasons behind their disqualification. Yeung and Kwok, in particular, were stopped from running after they wrote a joint statement calling on the U.S. to impose sanctions on those who have perpetrated rights abuses in Hong Kong. Though the two lawmakers had allegedly sent their joint letter months before the enforcement of the national security law, election officers claimed that the candidates’ past actions revealed their true intentions.
This comes as a disappointment to the opposition who were hoping to win a majority in the Legislative Council, where only half of the 70 seats are elected by the Hong Kong people. The remaining 30 seats are chosen by primarily pro-Beijing special interest groups, while the last five seats are occupied by popularly-elected district councillors. In November 2019, pro-democracy parties had won a landslide victory in District Council elections. This, alongside the high voter turnout of over 600,000 Hong Kongers in the recent unofficial primaries, strongly suggests that the opposition were on course for a win in the Legislative Council elections.
Although the city of 7.5 million has recorded over 3,100 infections as of Thursday, 30 July, more than double the amount on 1 July, pro-democracy lawmakers and watchdog groups have accused the government of using newly-reimposed social distancing rules, and now, the postponement, as means to clamp down on the protest movement. Hong Kong Watch, a non-governmental organisation that monitors the conditions of humans rights in Hong Kong, said the city’s total number of recorded COVID-19 cases are lower than South Korea, North Macedonia, Serbia, Poland, and Singapore – all of whom have successfully held elections.
Since the postponement announcement, 22 lawmakers have issued a statement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote. Joshua Wong wrote in a tweet, “Clearly hygiene measures can [be stepped] up to lower the risk of infection… But the govt knows only to interfere with the election that used to be free and fair… (sic).” Chinese director for Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson added to this sentiment saying, “The gross misuse of this draconian law makes clear the aim is to silence dissent, not protect national security.”
When asked by South China Morning Post if the health bureau had advised authorities to postpone the elections, health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said, “We don’t have particular views on this, because right now we need to focus on [fighting the outbreak].” The postponement, however, is in line with Hong Kong law should the city’s chief executive believes that elections are likely to be “obstructed, disrupted, undermined, or seriously affected by riot or open violence or any danger to public health and safety.” Even though voting is typically supposed to take place within 14 days of the original date, Lam has the power to overturn this ruling on “occasions of emergency or public danger.”
It remains to be seen how exactly this will play out in the public eye. However, in the meantime, student activists have also been arrested over social media posts that were deemed to be in breach of the law. According to The New York Times, the police said that the three men and one woman were arrested for “publishing content about secession, and inciting or abetting others for the commission of secession this.”
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