Macau's strict election rules backfire

Alice Wu says strict rules aimed at curtailing the sway of associations in Macau's legislative election actually had the opposite effect

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 1:48am

Only an hour's ferry ride apart and both special administrative regions and former colonies, Hong Kong and Macau are often talked of as if they were glued together by a geopolitical bond. This is probably because the conditions and arrangements for the two cities' transfer back to China looked identical. But, other than the fact the people speak the same Chinese dialect, comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges.

It is no wonder, then, that many outside Macau seemed surprised by the results of the fifth Legislative Assembly election held a little over a week ago. It really shouldn't be so shocking.

Despite the "low-profile" election - as many in the media called it - voter turnout, at 55 per cent, remained high. With an increase in registered voters, a 5 per cent drop in turnout still translated into more people voting this year than ever before. The reason "pro-democracy" candidates weren't able to capitalise on the two additional directly elected seats up for grabs this year, and the increased number of voters, wasn't political apathy, or the perceived "low-profile" nature of the election.

Macau is a close-knit community and therefore associations - whether by kinship, clanship, profession or industries - are and have historically been the social binds of society. And in that, Vasco Fong Man-chong, head of Macau's Commission Against Corruption, is right to say that "Macau's elections are all about association culture".

This means candidates with strong community and association ties have the advantage. Compound that with the inherent advantages incumbents enjoy, and it should be no surprise that the top two lists, in terms of number of votes received, featured candidates hailing from, and relying on clanship connections with, the Fujianese and Guangdong communities. It's much easier to mobilise voters when social structures and cultural influences are in place. It's essentially Tip O'Neill's famous "all politics is local" maxim, with a Macau twist.

The ridiculously short 14-day official campaign period, in addition to strict rules for candidate promotion introduced by the Electoral Affairs Commission, are why the election atmosphere, at least on the streets, was dampened. Rather than designating areas where the display of campaign materials is forbidden, electioneering was barred from all but government-designated areas.

Restricting candidates from contact with voters made it even more difficult for new-office seekers to win. By reducing the lines of open, equal and fair communication between candidates and voters, associations with strong membership had even greater political clout. Worse, it essentially stopped voters learning more about candidates.

So it isn't voters' taste for free meals and gifts, or the "association culture" that tilts the playing field in Macau politics. And it isn't the candidates' fault, either. The biggest story in the election was that the stringent election rules, originally aimed at curtailing the political influence of associations, actually made associations not only useful but systematically necessary in electioneering.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA