Hong Kong’s leader has said she believes public opinion is on her side in the government’s decision to postpone next month's Legislative Council elections by a year.
But Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also said the government had the ability to deal with any potential backlash to the delay, including street protests.
Her remarks on Saturday came a day after she cited risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic in announcing Legco elections originally slated for September would be delayed.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Hong Kong leader delays legislative elections, asks Beijing to resolve legal questions, citing coronavirus pandemic dangers
In an television interview, Lam was asked if she could foresee potential political consequences that could arise from the postponement.
“If some people oppose [the postponement] by protesting on the streets in defiance of the two-person gathering limit during the epidemic, or even take part in riots, we have the ability to handle these situations,” she said.
In a statement issued on Saturday night, Lam said she had discussed the epidemic with one of the government’s expert medical advisers but not the decision to postpone the elections.
It is understood that Lam met with a group of four advisers on Saturday afternoon and told them it would be unnecessary for them to make public comments about the election delay, as she did not want them dragged into political disputes.
The chief executive’s confidence in receiving public support was expressed during an interview with Commercial Radio in which she cited a recent survey showing more than half of respondents agreed with the postponement. Any public perception the government might be manipulating the election, she added, could be attributed to rising tensions between the United States and China.
“Objective facts are often put aside. Responses made by some countries are led by politics and their own interests,” she said.
Our defeat in the District Council elections has led to substantial challenges [in governance]. But we didn’t postpone it because of fearing a loss
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Lam did not specify the poll she referred to, but a survey conducted by One Country Two Systems Research Institute, led by former Executive Councillor Cheung Chi-kong, in mid-July showed that 48.5 per cent of about 1,000 respondents agreed the election should be postponed if the epidemic situation continued to deteriorate, while 41.2 per cent disagreed and 10.3 per cent had no opinion.
A survey released on Friday by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, a pollster for the opposition’s primary election, showed that 36 per cent of 9,000 respondents supported a delay while 55 per cent wanted it to proceed as planned.
The postponement has sparked widespread criticism from both the pro-democracy camp and the international community.
Hong Kong elections: Lam’s inner circle differs on how best to deal with Legislative Council vacuum postponement of polls will create
The United Kingdom’s foreign office spokesperson said “free and fair elections” were essential to upholding the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, while the White House on Friday also said the decision undermined the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s prosperity.
Lam responded on Saturday by criticising foreign governments for “not having an accurate understanding” of the “one country, two systems” policy, while adding the local government had plans in place to cope with further sanctions.
Defending her decision, Lam insisted the postponement was based solely on “public health considerations”, noting that last November’s District Council elections went ahead despite an expected defeat for the pro-government camp.
“Our defeat in the District Council elections has led to substantial challenges [in governance]. But we didn’t postpone it because of fearing a loss,” she said.
In announcing the controversial decision on Friday, the city leader did not clarify the constitutional grounds for the move, saying China’s top legislative body would step in to resolve any legal issues stemming from the vacuum.
On Saturday, Lam remained tight-lipped regarding Beijing’s position on whether the four incumbent lawmakers disqualified for the next elections could take part in the provisional term.
She said her “personal view” was that all serving members should remain in their seats, while also hoping they would “cooperate with the administration” in fulfilling their duties in the legislature.
Hong Kong elections: by delaying vote for one year, leader throws up raft of legal and political questions
“Not being able to contest an election does not mean they cannot continue to serve as lawmakers … But we’ll leave the matter to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to decide,” she said.
The standing committee is scheduled to meet from August 8 to 11, but its agenda does not include any items related to Hong Kong at this stage.
Meanwhile, former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa weighed in on the postponement on Saturday, defending it as a legitimate and rational arrangement in view of the severe Covid-19 situation.
“I believe that all sectors of society support the decision and the government will be committed to ensuring next year’s elections proceed smoothly as scheduled,” he said in a statement.
But the Legislative Council’s 22 pro-democracy lawmakers, including the four now barred from running in the now-postponed polls, issued their own joint statement on Saturday, saying Lam’s request that China’s top legislature determine how to proceed had created a constitutional crisis that would further undermine the city’s autonomy.
“Invoking emergency laws exposed the legislature to a black hole that … let Beijing illegally construct rules that have far-reaching impacts,” they said.
“[The government] will make use of the chance to pass any draconian bills and policies … One year later, public grievances will only escalate.”
Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng and Kimmy Chung
Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire is a new book of essays that chronicles the political confrontation that has gripped the city since June 2019. Edited by the South China Morning Post's Zuraidah Ibrahim and Jeffie Lam, the book draws on work from the Post's newsrooms across Hong Kong, Beijing, Washington and Singapore, with unmatched insights into all sides of the conflict. Buy directly from SCMP today for HKD$198. Rebel City: Hong Kong's Year of Water and Fire is also available at major bookshops worldwide and online through Amazon, Kobo, Google Books, and eBooks.com.
More from South China Morning Post: