HK to delay election over virus in blow to pro-democracy hopes

People wear face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in downtown Hong Kong on Tuesday. (AP pic)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is set to announce later on Friday the delay of a legislative election due to coronavirus risks, according to a Cable TV report, dealing a blow to the hopes of the pro-democracy opposition in the Chinese ruled city.

The city is set to vote on Sept 6, with the opposition hoping to win a historic majority widespread resentment of Beijing’s imposition of a new security law widely criticised by western countries as eroding citizens’ rights.

Having scored an overwhelming win in lower-level district council elections last year, the opposition was banking on keeping up the momentum gathered since anti-government protests erupted a year ago.

Hong Kong’s local Cable TV news channel said Lam would announce the delay in a news conference at 6pm local time.

Since the imposition of the security law on June 30 to punish what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, the crackdown on opposition forces has intensified.

Twelve opposition candidates, including young activist Joshua Wong but also more moderate, old-guard voices, have been disqualified from contesting the election. More candidates are expected to be barred in coming days.

The reasons cited by the pro-Beijing city government for their disqualification included what authorities perceive as subversive intentions, opposition to the new national security law, and a campaign to obtain a majority that can block legislation.

The government denies political censorship or suppression of the right to run for the legislature, where only half of the seats are directly elected, while the other half is stacked with pro-Beijing figures. Critics called the move a political purge.

Hong Kong police have also arrested four students aged 16-21 on suspicion they threatened the world superpower’s national security by allegedly being involved in an online group that pledged to use every means to fight for Hong Kong independence.

Critics say the new law crushes rights and freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will restore stability after a year of often-violent anti-establishment protests.

Hong Kong has reported more than 3,000 coronavirus cases since January, far lower than in other major cities around the world. The government has restricted group gatherings to two people to fight the spread.

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.