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Hong Kong considers postponing legislative elections

[HONG KONG] The Hong Kong government is considering postponing legislative elections amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases, media reports say, prompting criticism from pro-democracy candidates hoping to triumph in the September vote.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's advisory Executive Council was expected to meet Tuesday to discuss postponing the Sept 6 legislative elections, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported, citing people it didn't identify. An announcement could come later in the day, the paper added.

The government could declare an election delay in early August, according to the HKET and two separate reports by the Hong Kong Economic Journal and news organisation HK01, which cited sources. A government announcement was meant to come after the nomination period ends on Friday, but the timing was now uncertain after the information leaked to news outlets on Tuesday, the reports said.

"The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau and the Registration and Electoral Office are preparing for the election and shall closely keep in touch with the Food and Health Bureau and the Centre for Health Protection to monitor the development of the epidemic and formulate various plans," a government spokesperson told Bloomberg News.

The election would be Hong Kong's first since China's imposition of sweeping national security legislation, a move that raised the pro-democracy camp's concerns it would be used to disqualify its candidates from September's vote. The opposition has hoped to ride the momentum of its landslide victory in last November's District Council elections to a majority in the legislature.

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"Increasingly it's looking challenging to hold the election," Bernard Chan, the convener of the Executive Council and a top Lam adviser, said in an interview on Monday. "It's not like September is going to be any better. I just can't imagine things will be better and not worse than now, so we have to prepare for the worst."

Calls for delaying the Legislative Council elections have been growing in recent days, with outbreak-control measures making traditional campaigning increasingly difficult. On Monday, Hong Kong announced that it would limit public gatherings to no more than two people starting Wednesday.

The report of a potential delay comes after more than half a million Hong Kong residents voted in the opposition's unofficial primary elections earlier this month, defying government warnings and a rise in Covid-19 cases.

"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," Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong's No 2 official, said in response to a question on the election at a Monday briefing on virus measures. "We will closely monitor the situation and consider all factors. We will make announcements at an appropriate time."

A postponement of the sensitive election, even for public health reasons, could prompt further criticism of the government or more protests. Even before the recent rise in cases which reached 2,884 on Tuesday, after seven days straight of more than 100 daily cases democracy advocates were accusing the government of using virus-related social distancing measures to quell protests across the former British colony.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu tweeted that China wanted the delay in order to "avoid a potential devastating defeat" and because it was worried about further US sanctions should prominent opposition candidates be disqualified.

Prominent activist Joshua Wong, one of several aspiring opposition candidates who've been queried by electoral offers about past political statements, accused the government of trying to stifle the city's democracy by disqualifying democracy advocates, or delaying or canceling the vote.

"Using pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie," Mr Wong wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday. "But the govt knows only to interfere with the election that used to be free and fair, either disqualifying my candidacy or to call off the election."

A delay would mark a reversal for Mrs Lam, who said last Sunday that there would be no changes made to the vote. "The election is a solemn matter and cannot be amended as one pleases," she said. "I can only say that at this moment, no one can tell me how the virus situation would evolve."

A delay would also pose legal challenges. By law, the city's chief executive is allowed to delay the election for reasons such as typhoons, riots or public health emergencies but a new election date must be chosen for within two weeks of the original date. Rules stipulate that the election cannot be delayed twice.

In May, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced it would make contingency arrangements for the election to be adjourned to September 13.

Under the current rules, legislators lose the legal right to hold public office past September. Serving beyond their mandated four-year terms would require a constitutional amendment to the Basic Law, said Ma Ngok, an associate professor covering Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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