Democratic breakthrough in Macau election – now it’s time to reform the legislature

Sonny Lo says the Legislative Assembly election results show Macau’s casino-driven forces may be declining in status as young democratically minded candidates prove more popular

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 7:07pm

Macau’s latest legislative election result demonstrated an unprecedented victory for the democratic forces, who grabbed five of the 14 directly elected seats. While local media appeared to play this down, stressing the victory of grass-roots representatives from kaifong (neighbourhood) associations, labour unions and women’s associations (which captured four directly elected seats), careful analysis of the result shows several features.

First, voters appeared dissatisfied with the government performance after Typhoon Hato and came out for those candidates who helped citizens clear the streets, rather than those perceived to have done little for the public. Most importantly, candidates associated with casinos did not in general perform very well, a phenomenon attributable to public perception that Macau should not be heavily reliant on casino-driven capitalism. Instead, younger, outspoken candidates should be supported. This explains why Agnes Lam Iok-fong and Sulu Sou Ka-hou – younger, democratically inclined candidates – were elected. Melinda Chan Mei-yi was narrowly defeated, as her group’s mobilisation was weaker than traditionally strong pro-Beijing grass-roots organisations.

Second, the clan associations from the Fujian community and Jiangmen groups remained strong. Although the Fujian groups failed to get four seats, retaining three, their mobilisation capacity remained impressive. The Jiangmen groups utilised Taiwan-style electioneering, fully mobilising their clan supporters through large-scale nighttime mass gathering three days before voting.

High voter turnout in Macau shakes up political status quo as youngest ever lawmaker elected

Third, given that three political forces (the democrats, casinos and clans) are deeply entrenched, with mutual checks and balances within the directly elected sector, the chief executive is expected to choose for the seven appointed seats experts needed to enhance legislative competence, such as legal specialists.

Fourth, it is time for Macau to democratise the Legislative Assembly’s composition, putting forward a more long-term, forward-looking reform plan in the coming years, including the option of increasing the number of directly elected legislators and cutting or even abolishing the political appointees. Given the large number of groups participating in this year’s direct election, it is clear that there are insufficient channels of electoral participation currently available.

As such, it is long overdue for the Macau government to consider a more progressive approach to political reform. Otherwise, Macau’s development will remain unbalanced, with too much casino capitalism and underdeveloped political institutions.

Sonny Lo is a professor of politics at HKU SPACE