Unofficial Macau referendum won't feature polling stations

Organisers scrap plan to accept votes in person after police 'harassment' last weekend - which they say is linked to Hong Kong's reform debate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 3:33am

Plans to set up physical polling stations for Macau's unofficial referendum on democracy this weekend have been scrapped after police forced the closure of all five voting spots last Sunday.

Voting will continue online, however, until noon on Sunday - the same time the result of a one-horse race to be the enclave's chief executive is due to be released. A 400-strong election committee is set to rubber-stamp a second term for the sole candidate, Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on.

Despite a crackdown organisers described as "unexpectedly high-handed", some 7,400 of Macau's 624,000 eligible voters have taken part in the poll in its first five days. Voters are asked whether they have confidence in Chui and whether the next chief executive should be elected by universal suffrage in 2019.

At the poll's launch on Sunday, police stormed the five polling stations and detained organisers on suspicion of breaching data protection laws. One of the organisers has since been placed under judicial investigation. Officers were also seen jotting down voters' personal data at the scene.

Watch: Unofficial referendum organiser says Hong Kong and Macau should join forces for democracy

Organisers announced yesterday that the polling stations would not reopen as planned tomorrow because of "the police's rampant harassment of voters on the streets" last weekend.

They also turned down a police request to surrender the database used for the poll.

"The authorities are trying to exhaust all means to destroy all unfavourable materials targeted at Chui, to achieve a political goal," said Sulu Sou Ka-hou of Macau Conscience, which co-organised the poll with Macau Youth Dynamics and Open Macau Society. "It would inevitably deter people from being motivated to vote in future."

Sou was impressed that 7,000 people had voted in the face of a government crackdown he said was "unprecedented" since the gambling hub returned to Chinese administration in 1999. But he noted that the flow of votes had slowed from hundreds per hour to tens in the past two days.

"Turnout is within our expectation, as we cannot expect [voting] to stay at its peak forever," he said. "After all, [democracy] isn't a popular issue in Macau."

Sou believed the authorities' attitude was a response to the tense political atmosphere in Hong Kong, where debate over democracy for the 2017 chief executive election is in full swing.

Macau's referendum is similar to an exercise by Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement, in which 790,000 Hongkongers voiced their views on 2017 in June. Occupy vows to rally 10,000 people to block streets in Central if the government fails to deliver a satisfactory reform plan.

And Sou said turnout was almost three times the level of a previous public vote on democracy in Macau two years ago. That attracted 2,600 votes, and no "criticism" from the authorities.

"The central government has tightened its grip on the two special administrative regions and would never want to see pro-democracy powers in both cities reinforcing each other," Sou said.

Professor Eilo Yu Wing-yat, a University of Macau political scientist, said the vote reflected growing distrust in government.

"They want to exert pressure on the administration via this unofficial referendum," Yu said. "It is legally arguable whether the organisers have indeed breached personal data laws, as police have suggested. But no matter what, the government is apparently using administrative means to hurt the poll."

Unlike Hong Kong, Macau's Basic Law does not set universal suffrage as its ultimate goal. Politics has traditionally taken second place to the booming gaming industry, though political awareness has been on the rise over issues such as the soaring cost of housing. An unprecedented 20,000 people protested in May against a plan to give officials lavish retirement perks, forcing Chui to scrap the idea.