HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong could postpone a vote for seats in the city’s legislature by a year amid fears of a resurgence in coronavirus cases, public broadcaster RTHK reported on Wednesday, in what would be a blow for opposition democrats.
The pro-democracy camp is aiming to win a historic majority in the Sept. 6 election given widespread resentment of Beijing’s imposition of a new security law widely criticised by Western countries as eroding citizens’ rights.
The RTHK report cited unidentified sources and did not give any more details.
The government’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said in an emailed statement it was preparing for the election together with the Registration and Electoral Office “and shall closely keep in touch with the Food and Health Bureau, the Centre for Health Protection and relevant departments to monitor the development of the epidemic and formulate various plans”.
Some 600,000 people voted in unofficial “primary” polls for the opposition in Hong Kong this month, sending a younger, more confrontational generation of pro-democracy politicians into the race for the legislature.
One of them, prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong, said he would doubt the reason given for any coronavirus delay.
“Using pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie,” Wong said on Twitter.
The Legislative Council election would be the first vote in the former British colony since the introduction of the national security legislation in the semi-autonomous city.
The law punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and sees mainland Chinese security agents operating officially in the city for the first time.
Critics of the law say it erodes the freedoms Hong Kong was promised when it was handed back to China in 1997, while supporters say it would restore stability after a year of often-violent pro-democracy, anti-China protests.
Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, told top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi that Britain would be watching the elections closely and stressed that China needed to rebuild trust in the global community, a British Foreign Office spokesman said on Tuesday.
Under city laws, the government can postpone elections if the chief executive is of the opinion that the vote “is likely to be obstructed, disrupted, undermined or seriously affected by riot or open violence or any danger to public health or safety”.
A new election date, not more than 14 days after the original date, must be announced immediately, according to election laws. But colonial-era legislation gives the government sweeping powers in case of emergency or public danger.
It is not clear if former members of the city assembly, whose terms have expired, could return to the legislature in the event of a year’s postponement.
Hong Kong has reported about 3,000 coronavirus cases since January and more than 20 deaths - far lower than in other major cities around the world.
But the government has warned of a new surge of infections in the community and has banned dining in restaurants and limited group gatherings to two people.
Rival finance hub Singapore, which has had a larger coronavirus outbreak, held a general election this month.
At least 68 countries and territories have delayed national or regional elections due to the coronavirus since February, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said.
At least 49 countries and territories have decided to hold national or subnational elections, it said.
Additional reporting by Greg Torode and Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie
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