The Hong Kong government’s decision to delay a key election for a full year over coronavirus fears may be unlawful, according to the city’s lawyers.
In a statement criticising the move, the Hong Kong Bar Association expressed “grave concern” about the length and manner of the postponement, suggesting it was far greater than measures taken by other countries and territories.
The vote to elect members to Hong Kong’s devolved assembly, the Legislative Council, was due to be held on 6 September and would have been the first election in the city since the imposition of a controversial new security law by Beijing.
Opposition leaders had been hoping to send a message of public dissatisfaction with the new law by winning an historic first majority in the Council.
But Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam announced the vote would be delayed on Friday, calling it the hardest decision she had made during the pandemic.
It came less than a day after the government barred 12 prominent pro-democracy figures from running in the election, claiming they had failed to show support for the new legislation and could therefore not be trusted to uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, Ms Lam insisted there were no political considerations to the postponement, and that the coronavirus outbreak – adding roughly 100 cases a day to a total of about 3,500 – was the only cause.
In its statement, the bar associated noted that Hong Kong’s law specifically states elections postponed at times of danger to public health can only be pushed back a maximum of 14 days.
“Generally, a later law which addresses a specific problem – in this case, public health hazards at election time – would take precedence over an earlier, general law (the emergency rule),” the association said. The government’s use of emergency laws, it suggested, “may turn out to be unlawful”.
Hong Kong law also stipulates that a term of the Legislative Council cannot exceed four years, and Ms Lam said the government had asked the Chinese national parliament to decide what to do about the legislative vacuum created.
The bar association said it was “alarming” that Ms Lam’s administration was “effectively inviting” Beijing to decide on such matters “within the autonomy of Hong Kong”. “This is contrary to the principles of legality and legal certainty and degrades the rule of law in Hong Kong,” it said.
Hong Kong introduced tougher measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus last week including the mandatory use of masks in both indoor and outdoor public spaces, as well as stopping dine-in services at restaurants.
On Monday it reported 80 new cases, dropping below three digits for infections for the first time in 12 days. Since January, only 37 people have died of Covid-19 in Hong Kong.
The bar association said the year-long delay to the election came despite there being several “countries – having higher reported Covid-19 case number[s] – which have held elections in the past few months at both national and local level”. “Further, many of the countries which have postponed elections did so for considerably shorter periods,” it added.
Meanwhile, seven members of a proposed 60-strong team of medical experts from China have arrived in Hong Kong to assist with its outbreak response.
The team will mostly help with testing, according to the Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times, although according to Reuters there are concerns among Hong Kong politicians that China could also be collecting DNA samples for surveillance purposes. The Hong Kong government has denied this is the case.