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Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesBY: BRITT CLENNETT AND KARSON YIU, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) -- In a politically turbulent Hong Kong, the decision to postpone legislative elections for the first time since the city’s return to China is likely to fan flames even further.

Citing a recent surge in coronavirus cases, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Friday evening that elections for seats in the city’s legislature will not go ahead on the scheduled date of Sept. 6.

Such is the sensitivity of the issue, though, that Lam spoke for 30 minutes before revealing that the hotly contested elections would instead be held a whole year later, on Sept. 5, 2021.

Lam said she is invoking emergency powers to push back the date and that the delay is "supported" by Beijing.

Lam described it as "the hardest decision I have made in the past seven months”, adding that it was "necessary" to "protect public health, people's lives and guarantee fairness of the election.”

Hong Kong is currently in its third and most widespread wave of infections with more than 1,800 cases over the last three weeks.

Lam noted that the pandemic has forced other places to delay elections, including the United Kingdom and the Australian state of New South Wales. However, elections in Singapore and South Korea have gone ahead.

Former legislator Emily Lau told ABC News that the government is using the coronavirus outbreak as an “excuse” to delay an election that would have dealt pro-Beijing heavyweights a crushing defeat.

"Who is Carrie Lam trying to fool?" said Lau, who served as a lawmaker for 25 years after becoming the first woman to be elected in 1991.

"Pro-Beijing political parties and candidates are worried they will lose the election very badly, like they lost in the district council election last year," said Lau.

The move comes on the heels of a controversial decision to bar 12 pro-democratic candidates from taking part in the election.

Among the disqualified candidates are prominent activist Joshua Wong and Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung.

Before the disqualifications, the pan-democratic camp was expected to gain a historic majority in the legislature from the momentum of the protests last year, as well as the unpopularity of the National Security Law.

On Wednesday night, police arrested four people aged 16-21 on suspicion of being involved in an online group that pledged to fight for Hong Kong independence, something that is illegal under the new law.

For Emily Lau, these recent developments are a clear sign that China is breaking promises made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

"This policy of One Country, Two Systems, under which Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy, human rights, the rule of law and personal safety. I think that’s all gone out of the window. It is a very, very sad day for Hong Kong.”

Prior to Lam’s announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that if the September elections were postponed "it will be another marker that will simply prove that the Chinese Communist Party has now made Hong Kong just another communist-run city."

In postponing the elections, the Hong Kong government now faces a constitutional conundrum.

The Basic Law only allows for a two-week delay. Lam may need Beijing to step in to amend the city’s mini-constitution to allow the current legislature to serve for one more year.

To make matters more complicated, some of the candidates who were disqualified are incumbent lawmakers. The question becomes: Will they be allowed to stay?

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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