Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Friday postponed a Sept. 6 election for seats in the city legislature for a year because of a spike in novel coronavirus cases, dealing a blow to the pro-democracy opposition hoping to make gains in the vote.
The opposition was hoping to win a historic majority in the Legislative Council, where only half the seats are directly elected and the other half filled mostly by pro-Beijing appointees.
Lam's postponement of the vote comes after 12 pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running in the poll, for reasons including perceived subversive intentions, opposition to a new security law and campaigning to win a legislation-blocking majority.
Lam, who did not give a new date for the vote except to say it had been postponed for a year, told reporters the decision was the most difficult she had made in seven months.
The decision was aimed at safeguarding people's health, she said.
The poll would have been the former British colony's first official vote since Beijing imposed a new security law in late June, which critics say aims to quash dissent in China's freest city.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a guarantee of autonomy but critics say the new law undermines that promise and puts the territory on a more authoritarian path.
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News of the postponement came as the nomination period for candidates seeking to run in the election closed.
Hong Kong has reported more than 3,000 coronavirus cases since January, far lower than in other major cities around the world.
But for the past 10 days running the number of new infections has been in the triple-digits.
The government has limited gatherings to two people to fight the spread.
Police have cited such restrictions in rejecting applications for protests in recent months, effectively preventing any major demonstrations.
City authorities have insisted any coronavirus measures are taken for public health reasons and have no political consideration.
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 polls due to coronavirus since February, said the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
While at least 49 countries and territories have decided to hold national or subnational elections, it said.
Supporters of the new security law say it will bring more stability after a year of often-violent anti-government and anti-China unrest and it plugs loopholes in national security left by the city's inability to fulfil a constitutional requirement to pass such laws on its own.
Another constitutional aim is to introduce universal suffrage, the principal demand of last year's protests, but critics say the disqualifications of pro-democracy candidates show Beijing is unwilling to tolerate even some of the moderate, old-guard opposition voices.