Macau's chief executive bowed to public pressure yesterday and scrapped a contentious bill that would have granted lavish retirement packages to top officials.
Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on made the dramatic U-turn two days after thousands of protesters converged on the legislature calling for his resignation if he refused to withdraw the controversial proposals.
He had previously pledged to shelve the bill after an unprecedented demonstration on Sunday, thought to be the biggest march in the former Portuguese colony since the 1999 handover.
A humbled Chui admitted his administration could have done more to explain and solicit opinions on the bill.
"We need to listen to people's opinions in order to narrow the differences and form a consensus," he said after an Executive Council meeting.
Political scientists believe he is trying to smooth the way for his bid to secure a second five-year term. The bill would have given former chief executives a stipend every month equivalent to 70 per cent of their monthly salary for as long as they are unemployed. Chui's monthly salary is estimated at 270,000 patacas a month. It would have also granted a serving chief executive immunity from criminal charges.
Retiring ministers would have received a one-off payment of up to 30 per cent of their monthly wage for each month of service.
Protesters saw it as tailor-made for Chui's cabinet, which will see its current term end on December 19.
Rally organisers said 20,000 took part in Sunday's rally, with police putting the figure at nearer 7,000. The next day, Chui tried to compromise by asking the Legislative Assembly president to drop the item from discussion on Tuesday, when lawmakers were due to vote on the bill.
But protesters still massed outside the legislature demanding that the bill be totally withdrawn. After yesterday's decision, they vowed to keep up the pressure to push for democracy. Sulu Sou Ka-hou, of rally organiser Macau Conscience, described Chui's latest concession as a "small victory" for the city's civil rights movement.
"But at the end of the day, the problem today stems from the undemocratic political system we have," Sou said. "The legislature has apparently failed to monitor the government."
He said they would organise forums - not necessarily protests - to help residents understand that democracy was the ultimate key to solving the problems.
As a first step, he said, a rally would be held outside the legislature on June 8 to demand universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive. Meanwhile, Chui said the secretary for administration and justice would draft a new paper on retirement benefits for public consultation.
But Eilo Yu Wing-yat, a political scientist at the University of Macau, said the rallies could prompt Beijing to prepare a substitute for Chui in time for this year's election.
"From Hong Kong's experience, Beijing has realised that small incidents can have a big impact [on the election]," he said. "Chui might want to settle the dispute before Beijing actually comes up with a plan B."