‘Constitutional Crisis’: Hong Kong Postpones Elections for One Year

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media about the new national security law introduced to the city at her weekly press conference in Hong Kong on July 7, 2020. - China has quickly moved to censor Hong Kong's internet and access users' data using a feared new …
ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Friday that next month’s scheduled legislative elections will be postponed for a year due to the surge in coronavirus cases.

Pro-democracy Hong Kongers, already reeling from the ham-fisted disqualification of a dozen candidates, anticipated the government might postpone the election to avoid embarrassing defeats for the Beijing-controlled establishment at the polls.

Joshua Wong, one of the pro-democracy candidates banned on Thursday, warned earlier in the week that using the coronavirus as an “excuse to postpone the election” would be a “lie.” On Friday, he denounced the postponement as “the largest election fraud in Hong Kong’s history.”

Other opposition leaders demanded last week to know the government’s firm plans for holding the September 9 election, suspecting it would be postponed after the unexpectedly large turnout for unofficial pro-democracy primaries in July. Lam said as recently as last Sunday that she had no plans to delay the election.

However, Lam said on Friday that the election would be postponed for a year, without giving a rescheduled date. She described it as one of the most difficult decisions she has made but found it necessary for public health given the recent spike in coronavirus infections.

“The new wave of epidemics may take several weeks or even longer. Even if the previous experience in April or May, even if the epidemic stabilizes, the society will take some time to recover. Experts say unless it is immediate that they develop and supply effective vaccines, otherwise a winter outbreak is very likely to occur by the end of the year,” she said, explaining why a full year’s delay was needed.

“This postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons, there were no political considerations,” she insisted.

Lam’s supporters argued that tight restrictions on public gatherings would make campaigning and voting prohibitively difficult and lockdowns in some areas could prevent residents from voting at all, including Hong Kong voters who live on the Chinese mainland. 

Critics noted that other cities and countries experiencing much more severe coronavirus outbreaks than Hong Kong have been able to hold elections this year. They also pointed out that Hong Kong’s Basic Law allows for only a maximum delay of 14 days and the incumbents cannot legally sit for another session of the Legislative Council, legal obstacles Lam has asked the regime in Beijing to remove. 

The opposition is unlikely to be comfortable with watching the central government rewrite Basic Law again on the fly, especially after a dozen of its candidates were disqualified for supposedly lacking a firm commitment to upholding the Basic Law. A statement from 22 pro-democracy lawmakers, four of whom were banned from running this week, charged that postponing the election for more than two weeks would trigger a “constitutional crisis,” while Beijing unilaterally altering election laws would “spell the total collapse of our constitutional order.”

Postponing the election and disqualifying candidates under the new security law also represent a painful rebuke to the huge number of Hong Kongers who supported the 2019 protest movement, since one of its key demands was for more democracy, not less. The protest movement wanted more of the legislative seats and executive offices, including Lam’s, to be subject to popular vote. As the system stands, the public only gets to vote on half of the legislative seats, and top officials are appointed by the central government.

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