Fernando Chui will be re-elected Macau's leader but faces growing gripes

Fernando Chui will be re-elected unopposed as Macau chief executive, but many in city are unhappy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 5:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 12:11pm

Four hundred social and business leaders in Macau are preparing to elect the city's next leader at the end of this month. Meanwhile, young democracy activists have spent every day of the past few weeks on Macau's streets, enduring gruelling heat and pouring rain, to urge fellow residents to take part in an unofficial democracy referendum.

The exercise, organised by three local pro-democracy groups, offers hundreds of thousands of citizens in the former Portuguese enclave who cannot vote an opportunity to have their say about the political system and the next chief executive.

Not that there's any mystery as to who will win. Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on took the chief executive's office uncontested in 2009, and he is running unchallenged again.

Chui is expected to be re-elected easily - even though he sits in a more precarious position than when he took office five years ago.

In May, the 57-year-old former secretary for social affairs and culture survived the biggest blow to his political career. Belying the long-held view that Macau's people are apolitical, about 20,000 citizens protested in what was described as Macau's biggest rally since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, opposing a bill proposed by Chui to give lavish retirement packages to outgoing chief executives and ministers.

Critics have also blamed Chui for failing to control housing prices, forcing many couples to delay marriage plans until they can afford humble flats.

Young people have complained that they see no alternative career paths in a city flooded with glitzy casinos.

Activist Kuan Un-san blasted Chui for failing to act on his promises - such as diversifying the city's economy and making government transparent.

"I can't see any change in society," she said. Even Chui's policy addresses, she said, sounded almost the same each year.

Chui seems to be aware of the complaints and the issues that are riling voters.

On August 16, during his sole question-and-answer session with voters, Chui promised that housing would be the next administration's top priority and vowed to strike a balance between its supply and demand.

He also promised to increase the government's transparency and accountability by ensuring that every crucial bill would in future go through a public consultation before heading to the legislature.

But he did not make any concrete promises about the city's democratic development - such as when to start the next round of public hearings over political reform. And he said he couldn't comment as to whether the current electoral method would harm the chief executive's credibility.

His campaign declined a request for an interview.

The group Kuan runs, Macau Youth Dynamics, is co-organising the unofficial referendum with Macau Conscience and the Open Macau Society. Polling will run from today until Saturday. Those taking part will be asked if they have confidence in the sole candidate to lead them and if the chief executive should be chosen via universal suffrage in 2019.

Unlike Hong Kong's Basic Law, Macau's constitution does not specify that universal suffrage should be its government's ultimate goal. Macau's 400-member election committee will continue to choose who leads the city's 624,000 residents if no change is made.

Hong Kong residents are locked in bitter debate over the best way to achieve universal suffrage, with many people demanding that Beijing allow citizens to nominate candidates, a request that many others expect the central government to deny.

Many in Macau wonder why that city wasn't promised universal voting rights.

"Hong Kong is going to popularly elect its chief executive - no matter if it is a genuine or counterfeit universal suffrage - by 2017. But why does Macau, also a special administrative region in China, not have this right?" Kuan asked.

"A referendum would not necessarily make democracy possible in the 2019 chief executive race, but at least it is a process to educate citizens as to the importance of it."

According to the latest World Bank Report, Macau has surpassed Switzerland to become the world's fourth richest territory in terms of gross domestic product per capita, thanks to mainland gamblers and tourists. Luxembourg remains the wealthiest country.

But the high taxes that the casinos pay had not turned Macau into a more liveable city, critics said.

In the fourth quarter of 2009 - when Chui first took office - the average price for a flat was 25,631 patacas per square metre. Since then, property prices have more than tripled, to 88,958 patacas per square metre in the first quarter of this year.

Before his re-election, Chui announced his plan to ensure a supply of 32,000 flats - with 28,000 of them for public housing - in a newly reclaimed zone. None of these flats will be available to live in until 2020.

A resident who would identify himself only as Mr Chum, 67, said that he felt let down by Chui's performance. The soaring property prices had kept his two sons, aged 28 and 30, from moving out of his tiny apartment and starting their own families, he said. "How could they afford to buy any flat - which easily costs more than 3 million - if they are only paid 10,000 to 20,000 patacas per month?" he asked. "Girls will have married someone with property."

He also vowed to vote in the seven-day plebiscite. "I would definitely pick another one [to be chief executive] if I were given the right to choose," he said with frustration. "The whole chief-executive election is both redundant and a waste of money. It's going to be Chui re-elected anyway. Why don't we use taxpayers' money to take care of the elderly, instead of wasting resources on an election with 400 people?"

While the big jump in housing prices has been a major source of frustration for the public, the city's reliance on the gaming sector angers residents as well.

Crowds of mainland tourists - who account for 90 per cent of Macau's visitors, outnumbering the city's own population during the Lunar New Year holiday - have made the city centre suffocatingly crowded.

Macau is the only Chinese city where gambling is legal. Gaming's share of the city's GDP soared from 32.3 per cent in 2009 to 45.9 per cent in 2012. Almost 100,000 people work in gaming and related service industries, according to the Macau statistics service.

Some residents fret that hotels and tourism have crowded other industries out. Chui pledged in his last policy address to develop Macau's technology and conference sectors.

Bill Chou Kwok-ping, an associate professor of political science at the University of Macau, said he doubted that could happen, since Macau hadn't scaled up other industries.

"There is little incentive for overseas talent who specialise in non-gaming sectors to come and work in Macau," he said.

Eight more casino and resort projects are being planned on the reclaimed Cotai strip - which is seen as a sign that mainlanders' appetite for Macau's glamour remains high.

It would be "all too difficult" to reverse the reliance on gaming revenues, said Dr Amy So Siu-ian, director of the hospitality and gaming management programme at the University of Macau. "That's the way Macau's history was written," she said.

Professor Davis Fong Ka-chio, director of the University of Macau's Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming, also worries that the industry has created "distorted sets of values" for the younger generation. Casinos offer high wages to people with relatively little education, giving them no incentive to improve their qualifications.

With gambling generating such great wealth, residents have increasingly demanded that the city share that revenue through better services. That included more housing, better public transport systems and better pensions, democracy groups and several lawmakers said.

Sulu Sou Ka-hou, the newly elected president of the city's most prominent democratic group, the New Macau Association, is one of several activists demanding more. Sou said young people could hardly realise their potential in what he called "this unlivable city", where gaming is the only game in town.

He criticised Chui, who is widely supported by an election committee dominated by the business sector. Sou said Chui was inclined to favour conglomerates, hoping to forge powerful alliances by offering favourable land and gaming policies. Since the handover, Sou said, just a few pieces of land had been publicly auctioned.

"Many plots of land are sold cheaply to the property tycoons instead," said Sou. "The golden plots have gone to conglomerates, while the public housing can only be built in less [convenient] places." One of the newest public housing estates is in Seac Pai Van, on the southern periphery of Macau's developed area, a fact which drew complaints from many residents that it's too remote for commuters.

Sou, one of the organisers of May's rallies, said a democratic government was the only means to a fairer society.

Such brewing conflicts and democratic hopes could make Chui's next five years tough ones.

In 2009, when Chui first ran for the city's top job, he vowed to build a "harmonious society" and increase the government's accountability. Veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Au Kam-san, of the New Macau Association, blasted Chui for failing to achieve that goal. He wants the new administration to launch a public consultation on political reform no later than next year, even though the city's legislature has been dominated by a rival camp that is deferential to Beijing.

He said the current election committee - which is responsible for nominating and picking the chief executive - had no credibility at all. "Macau should start paving its way to universal suffrage," he said.

People who've been protesting say they want no less.

Another resident who asked to be identified as Mr Wong runs a herbal tea stall near the Red Market. But the beverages, billed as calming to one's soul and body, had little impact on the 50-year-old when the subject of democracy came up.

"How will there be progress if there isn't any competition?" he asked, his voice rising.

He described himself as a conservative and said the city's chief must maintain a good relationship with Beijing.

But he said the later the city got "one man, one vote", the deeper the government's credibility crisis would become. "It's useless to expand the election committee into 600 or 1000 strong. What is needed is an overhaul of the entire system."