Macau holds low-profile election

Macau's legislative election has seen scant campaigning and little interest from residents enjoying the fruits of the gambling boom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 3:17am

Macau goes to the polls today for its fifth Legislative Assembly election - but you would be hard-pressed to find signs of any political campaigning amid the former Portuguese colony's ageing streets and glitzy casinos.

While Hong Kong's legislative and chief executive elections last year were characterised by fierce debates, wall-to-wall media coverage and omnipresent posters plastered around the city, the casual visitor to Macau might barely notice a poll was about to take place.

This is down in part to rules introduced by the city's Electoral Affairs Commission, which outlawed the use of commercial advertising by election candidates to promote themselves. This has left campaign vehicles with loudspeakers, which parade around the city, as the main face of the campaigns.

But there are deeper reasons for the stark contrast between politically charged Hong Kong and the relative apathy in the special administrative region on the other side of the Pearl River Delta. With Macau's casino-led economy booming and the government dishing out sweeteners every year, few residents see much reason to rock the boat.

The Sunday Morning Post struggled to find anyone on the streets planning to vote.

"I have no expectation either of the election or the lawmakers elected, they won't realise their election manifesto anyway," said one unemployed man in his 30s, who said he had never voted since becoming eligible at the age of 18.

While he supported universal suffrage in principle, he saw little point in voting for one of the 20 slates of candidates seeking to fill 14 directly elected seats. A further 12 lawmakers will be returned uncontested as the only candidates in functional constituencies. Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on has the power to appoint seven lawmakers.

"The election means nothing, as everything will be decided by Beijing at the end of the day," the man said. "If I had to make a choice, I would go for candidates with business backgrounds - at least they have the bargaining power to urge the government to introduce more relief measures."

He admits that Macau residents are "short-sighted" and easily satisfied by the lucrative cash handouts the government has taken to dishing out from its share of the gambling boom.

"I guess Macau citizens take universal suffrage less seriously than Hongkongers," he said. "If you ask me to call for democracy on the internet or telephone, I might do it. But on the street? Perhaps not. I do not want to waste my time on something you could never achieve."

Chui's administration and its handouts have won the admiration of many voters.

"The public resentment in Macau is not as fierce as in Hong Kong - maybe that is why the Macau election is quieter," said a local housewife.

She said the rise of new casinos since Stanley Ho Hung-sun's empire lost its monopoly had provided many job opportunities. A middle-aged person with no technical skills or qualifications could easily get a job with a monthly salary of more than 10,000 patacas, she said.

"The abundant job vacancies keep society fairly stable here despite the fact property prices have risen to an unaffordable level," she added.

Government spending on subsidies has escalated since Chui took office in 2009, hitting 9.8 billion patacas last year, which was shared by the city's 582,000 residents.

Former chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah first introduced the cash handouts. He announced his administration would give 5,000 patacas to each permanent resident and 3,000 to non-permanent residents in 2008. By last year the annual cash handout for permanent and non-permanent residents had reached 8,000 and 4,800 patacas respectively.

Nowhere is the contrast between politically active Hong Kong and apathetic Macau starker than in school classrooms. While Hong Kong students took to the streets in their thousands to force the government to back down on plans to introduce national education, Macau's secondary school pupils show little enthusiasm for politics or today's election.

"The performance of the government is satisfactory - I don't think we need any lawmakers from the opposition camp to monitor them," said 17-year-old Ivan Hoi.

For 15-year-old Kiki Fong, the election was important - although she is confused by the city's electoral system. She was under the impression that its chief executive was directly elected by universal suffrage rather than chosen by a 300-strong election committee.

"Macau, in terms of its economic situation, political environment and civic society, is very different from Hong Kong," said Eilo Yu Wing-yat, an associate professor of political science at the University of Macau.

Yu said Hong Kong's economy was mature and that any new economic plans there had to strike a balance between sustainability and development to avoid conflicts, but Macau's economy is still in the growth phase.

"It's like Hong Kong in the 1970s, when everyone indulged in the economic growth and very few were concerned about social conflicts," Yu, a Hong Kong native, said of today's Macau.

With unemployment running at just 2 per cent and fresh university graduates easily able to secure a job with a starting salary of between 14,000 and 20,000 patacas, "young people are hopeful here", Yu said.

Now in his 11th year working in Macau, Yu said it is clear the government has been very successful at keeping resentment in check with relief measures.

"The Macau government is not reluctant to spend money … as long as they know the money goes into citizens' pockets," he said. But he fears the government's free-spending ways could backfire in future.

"Citizens will only ask for more in future and their government can never go back, but only escalate such measures."

Yu said that although young democracy supporters and local think tanks had increasingly taken up human rights campaigning, the majority of the public seemed indifferent to such issues.

But, Yu said, the fact that Macau people aren't very interested in elections or campaigning does not mean they are apolitical.

"Macau is a relatively small community - people tend to be more conservative and still believe that standing on the front line of a political battle will bring negative impacts to their kith and kin," he said.

"Some, especially elderly and middle-class people, reckon Hong Kong is a negative example. They regard the political disputes in Hong Kong as having hindered the city's development and want to stop Macau from following in Hong Kong's footsteps."

Yu also believes there is a difference in the way Hongkongers and Macau residents perceive Beijing's attitude. While the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement and the Individual Visit Scheme - under which mainland tourists can visit the two cities without joining a tour group - are treated with scepticism in Hong Kong, they have been welcomed in Macau.

The presence of the People's Liberation Army since the 1999 handover is seen as having helped subdue triad gangs who brought chaos in the colonial era.

"What might be seen as 'intervention' in Hong Kong is seen by Macau people as a form of communication or even assistance," Yu said.

On Tuesday night, two rival candidates, both backed by Macau's casino lobby, brought a splash of colour to the city's quiet streets with campaign rallies.

Melinda Chan Mei-yi, an incumbent lawmaker for the Alliance for Change, spoke at an event attended by hundreds of orange-clad supporters in Tap Seac Square who cheered as organisers handed out bottled water and campaign T-shirts.

It was a similar story at an equally well-attended rally at Iao Hon Market Garden by fellow lawmaker Chan Meng-kam of the United Citizens Association.

But the mood is very different at the offices of Jason Chao Teng-hei, a young, radical pan-democrat candidate who recently came out as gay. Chao is affiliated with the New Macau Association but has chosen to run on a slate of his own this time.

He cuts short his interview with the Post to tell his small team of supporters to stop handing out pamphlets that night as they risk running out before polling day.

Despite his limited resources, he says the strict limits on campaigning work in favour of pan-democrats who don't have the backing of the casino industry.

"Pro-establishment candidates will not be able to enjoy overwhelming exposure by buying excessive ads," Chao said.

The lack of high-profile campaigning hides the fact that many candidates tend to lobby and mobilise voters through their own societies and networks, said Bill Chou Kwok-ping, an associate professor of politics at the University of Macau.

Chou said pan-democrats in Macau find themselves in a difficult position in light of the public's less hostile attitude towards the government.

"That is why Jason Chao has decided to run individually this year to explore a new voter base for the camp," he said.

But academics do see a glimmer of hope for democracy in Macau, especially if the Hong Kong and Beijing governments live up to their pledge to allow the 2017 Hong Kong chief executive election to be carried out by universal suffrage.

"If Hong Kong could implement universal suffrage for the chief executive in 2017, it will definitely push forward Macau's democratic progress," Yu said.