HONG KONG- Hong Kong on Friday postponed an election for a new leader until May to battle a raging COVID outbreak, but unlike previous years, there's still no front-runner for the job, adding to uncertainty about the city's future as Beijing imposes its rule.
The former British colony returned to China in 1997, since when there have been four chief executives, all of whom struggled to balance the democratic aspirations of some residents with the vision of China's Communist Party leaders.
All of the city's leaders have been backed by Beijing and chosen by a small committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
But unlike previous times, where likely candidates have signalled their intention to run months in advance, there's no clear favourite.
Diplomats, government sources and political observers say that's partly because there's no obvious indication of China's favourite in the "chief executive election" that had been due on March 27 but has now been pushed back till May 8 to allow time for the government to battle a deteriorating COVID outbreak.
"Suddenly there's a lot of shadow play," one senior Western diplomat said. "The protracted sense of uncertainty surrounding this election cannot be a good thing."
Whoever gets the job will be expected to maintain China's hardline stance on dissent, some observers say, and further squeeze remnant liberal pockets of Hong Kong society with more security legislation expected to be drafted this year.
Parallel to that, Hong Kong's next leader will have to attempt to re-launch the city internationally after widespread Western criticism over the security squeeze that followed months of at times violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday again skirted questions on whether she would seek another term and her office gave no immediate response to a Reuters request for comment.
Among the contenders being discussed in political circles are Lam, financial secretary Paul Chan, former leader Leung Chun-ying, the China-born former head of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Charles Li, and pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao.
One source with ties to senior Chinese officials said China had not yet made up its mind on whether to allow Lam to stay on for a second term, adding she was under a shadow for her handling of events that led up to the 2019 protests.
"I know Beijing feels they made a mistake" in choosing Lam when she got the job in 2017, said the person, who has met leading Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
"She's damaged goods in their eyes, but finding a suitable alternative has been difficult."
Lam has also been sanctioned by the United States for her role in the crackdown on the protests, which could be a liability, analysts say.
"The Chinese government's rational choice would be to change horse and to appoint someone who's not been targeted by the sanctions, to start on a new page," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Hong Kong-based professor and China politics expert.
The surge of COVID infections after many months of containing the virus with tough restrictions has also re-enforced public perceptions of a government unable to handle crises.
This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Hong Kong to make COVID containment its "overriding mission" in what some, including Cabestan, saw as a clear rebuke of Lam.
Lam on Friday said she'd decided to postpone the election using powers under emergency regulations, and that she'd obtained the "consent" of Beijing.
While Lam hoped a new leader would still have time to take office on July 1 after her current term ends, she said she couldn't rule out the possibility of further delays to the poll.
"The epidemic situation is changing so rapidly so no one can give any guarantee what will happen the next day," she said.
(Additional reporting by Greg Torode; Editing by Nick Macfie) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +852-28436390; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))