Macau votes for new legislature in ‘most hotly contested polls’ in years

Pro-establishment bloc expected to maintain dominance, but will casino hub roll dice on small yet vocal pro-democracy camp?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 10:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 11:28pm

More than 300,000 Macau voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new legislature as the world’s top casino hub enters what is arguably the most crucial period in its recent history.

Elections for the city’s Legislative Assembly come at the end of a tumultuous 18 years since the former Portuguese enclave became China’s only other special administrative region. Macau has transformed from a down-at-heel casino backwater to a glitzy destination that has outstripped Las Vegas in gaming revenue.

Analysts say Sunday’s polls to elect a 33-member Legislative Assembly – 14 seats are directly elected, 12 indirectly elected and seven appointed – will be the most hotly contested in years, despite Macau having only a fraction of the rancour and division seen in nearby Hong Kong.

The pro-establishment bloc is expected to maintain its dominance in the assembly after a campaign in which the city’s small yet vocal pro-democracy camp found itself on the defensive after it tried to gain political capital by criticising the first ever use of troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army to help clean up the city following Typhoon Hato.

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But it is the future of the casino industry and the global gaming leader’s role in Beijing’s plans along with Hong Kong and Zhuhai in the so-called “Greater Bay Area” that are at stake in the election.

A number of candidates possess direct links to the casino industry, whether advocating for bosses or workers.

More than 55,000 people in Macau are directly employed by casinos, or 15 per cent of the city’s total working population of 382,300, according to government figures. Most of them are eligible voters, and when added to those employed in the wider hotel and tourism industry, they represent a significant voting block.

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With casino licences expiring by 2020, the newly formed assembly is poised to play a key role in deciding the terms under which new concessions would be granted in what is a vastly different gaming, political and economic environment to that of 2001, when the market first opened up.

The assembly is also tasked with driving forward Macau’s role in Beijisng’s Greater Bay Area master plan in which it is to be integrated economically with Hong Kong and neighbouring Zhuhai in Guangdong province.

In addition, the new lawmakers will have a real say in shaping a strategy to fulfil Beijing’s vision of Macau as a “bridge” between China and the Portuguese-speaking world.

Veteran Macau political commentator Sony Lo Shiu-hing said: “These will be the most hotly contested polls in a long, long time. There is so much at stake in terms of the future of the city as part of the wider nation of China.”

There is so much at stake in terms of the future of the city
Macau political commentator Sony Lo Shiu-hing

The candidates with casino links include Angela Leong On-kei, an executive director of Macau casino operator SJM Holdings Ltd and fourth wife of magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun. She is running for the fourth time as a candidate for a direct seat, having already been successful three times.

Influential casino-linked Chan Meng-kam – a veteran legislator and casino boss born in the mainland’s Fujian province – is not running this year, but he campaigned alongside legislators Si Ka-lon and Song Pek-kei, each leading an electoral ticket and seeking re-election.

Gina Lei Sou-ian, senior vice-president of corporate and community relations of local gambling junket investor Suncity Group, is the third candidate on Si’s list.

Local gaming worker activist Cloee Chao is a first-time candidate for a directly elected seat along with seven other gaming sector workers. Chao is pledging better benefits for casino workers and calling for a trade union law to provide a framework for local casino workers to negotiate with their employers.

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Direct-election candidate Melinda Chan Mei-yi – the wife of David Chow Kam-fai, who is co-chairman and CEO of casino services firm Macau Legend Development – is seeking re-election with a political programme that scarcely mentions gaming policy.

During her campaign, Chan echoed Chow’s call for the city’s casino employees to be exempted from work when a typhoon signal No 8 or above is issued by the local weather bureau.