Hong Kong leader election postponed as city battles COVID surge

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes questions from lawmakers during the first regular meeting of the legislature at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong

HONG KONG – The election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, scheduled to be held in March, will be postponed to May as the Asian financial hub battles to control an accelerating surge in COVID-19 infections, city leader Carrie Lam said on Friday.

A nomination period would be pushed back till April 3-16 and the election delayed until May 8, she told reporters, which would still give time for a new leader to be installed on July 1 after the end of her term.

Lam said she had received Beijing’s “consent” for the postponement, using powers under emergency regulations.

“I remain optimistic that we will be able to overcome this public health crisis,” she told reporters, adding she wouldn’t rule out possibly having to postpone the election again if the health crisis deteriorates.

Quarantine facilities in Hong Kong have reached capacity and hospital beds are more than 95% full as cases spiral, with some patients left on beds outside in chilly, sometimes rainy weather.

Restrictions on social and public gatherings, imposed after the pandemic first struck, helped the former British colony stifle sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

A national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020 crushing dissent effectively ended the unrest.

Since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, there have been four chief executives, all of whom have struggled to balance the democratic aspirations of some residents with the vision of China’s Communist leaders.

All of the city’s leaders have been backed by Beijing and chosen by a small “election committee” stacked with Beijing loyalists that was expanded from 1,200 to 1,500 members in a sweeping electoral overhaul announced last year.

An election to the mini-parliament Legislative Council, originally due for September 2020, was pushed back until December 2021.

Unlike previous Hong Kong leadership elections, including the previous one in 2017, no heavyweight candidates have signalled their intention to run and there’s no clear favourite.

Lam herself skirted questions on whether she would run.

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Hong Kong Newsroom; editing by John Stonestreet and Nick Macfie)