Macau elections tend to have few surprises, but Sunday’s produced many.
A somewhat dramatic redistribution of power among the 14 directly elected lawmakers, underpinned by the nuances of Macau’s electoral system, has elevated certain associations to play a pivotal role in the upcoming four years.
On Sunday, a two-percentage-point rise in voter turnout brought three newcomers into the legislature and forced two incumbents out. Chan Meng Kam, one of Macau’s most influential politicians, stood this one out, and consequently watched his association relinquish a seat.
Four political associations, the Macau United Citizens Association (ACUM), the Macau-Guangdong Union (UMG), the Union for Development (UPD) and the New Macau Association (ANM), are now left with more than one seat each, compared with five such organizations in the previous assembly. The nine last seats to be awarded this year were determined by a matter of about 3,000 votes, while that same number covered only the last seven in 2013.
“The votes in this election were distributed quite evenly,” political commentator Larry So told the Times yesterday. “For a team to return three members of the AL is now very unlikely. [ACUM] was right to adopt a new strategy with the dual lists, but it didn’t work out for them. […] I think, in the future, lists should aim to elect just a single lawmaker as it is becoming quite tough to elect a second.”
The somewhat surprising ouster of Melinda Chan – and to a much lesser extent, Leong Veng Chai – was not only due to the unexpected closeness of the election, but to several systemic factors.
According to political scientist Eric Sautedé, the redistribution of power is a “natural consequence of the electoral system” itself, which encourages list-splitting to circumvent the disproportionate number of votes needed for more than two seats.
But the results are also reflective of deep divisions in Macau society that went unnoticed prior to the election: Generational divisions; democrat-establishment divisions; and differences in opinion over how the government handled the aftermath of Typhoon Hato, the deadliest natural disaster to strike Macau in recorded history.
Pointing to a generational divide that has emerged between the older voters in the territory and the approximately 30,000 new registered voters, some analysts say that youth voters – often the first generation of their family to be born in the MSAR – are beginning to reject the tribal, ‘birthplace preferences’ of their elders and instead opt for issue-orientated candidates.
“To a certain extent, this represents a shift toward the younger members of society, who are coming to power for the first time and are dissatisfied with the [status quo],” said So, but added that the change may also be due to the specific course of recent current events.
“I would like to believe that this shift is occurring,” said Sautedé, “but the youth are also supporting lawmakers such as Mak Soi Kun.”
In Sunday’s election, Kun stood as list-leader for UMG – a traditional birth-place group calling for greater ties and integration between Macau and Guangdong Province. Putting forward a single list, UMG was backed by 17,207 votes, more than any other competitor list.
The reason, according to Sautedé, is that UMG has an appeal beyond birth-place tribalism. Youth voters are being attracted to the political associations because of policies that the group is putting forward.
“The popularity of the Macau-Guangdong Union is linked to the government’s promotion of integration in the Pearl River Delta region,” he argued, which is creating lucrative business opportunities and tax incentives for young people in Macau.
Typhoon Hato might have also played a role boosting the popularity of some associations and dampening that of others.
“I suspect that Hato played a role,” said Sautedé. “I believe that people were a little fed up and ready for change. […] Hato was perhaps a trigger or reminder of the shortcomings of the government.”
Larry So is in agreement. He told the Times that dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the typhoon played straight into the democrats’ hands.
“Housing and transportation issues have created dissatisfaction with the government for a long time, but the typhoon triggered more dissatisfaction [by exposing] that the government was not doing what it should do,” he said.
Again, it was down to the youth generation to make that dissatisfaction felt.
“If they are dissatisfied, the young generation will not vote for the pan-establishment lawmakers that [support] the government; they will turn to the pan-democrats,” he added.
The democrats outperformed expectations on Sunday and, with the exception of Leong Veng Chai, successfully defended their legislature seats. Newcomers Sulu Sou and Agnes Lam now threaten to alter the balance of power within the Legislative Assembly.
“Having a 26-year-old [in Sulu Sou], who might not play by the rules of the game, could really change things,” said Sautedé.
“We must once again rethink our position and extend our service to other groups, including all Macau residents, instead of just our members in the Macau Jiangmen Communal Society.”
“Previously I was an indirectly elected lawmaker and I will do a better job in the upcoming four years. The core work of my campaign has been to allow residents to have a happy life. I hope to help building a better living environment for the next generation.”
“The number of votes I got indicates that the voters care about his work in the AL. The votes will encourage me to serve the public even harder.”
Au Kam San
“I hope that Chui won’t underestimate the power of young people.”
“We have a dream that one day, the majority of AL are directly elected and only one seat, according to the Basic Law, will remain indirectly elected.”
“I feel good that I gained more votes but, at the same time, I feel the responsibility because, to be honest, I promised a lot. I need to work very hard.”
“I never thought this would happen, but I respect the decision of the Macau citizens.”
“We are going to study the loss of votes and which candidates our potential votes have gone to. […] Whatever the result, we both [Song Pek Kei and Si Ka Lon] have to take the baton passed by Chan [Meng Kam].”
Song Pek Kei
“If the city does not even vote for so few directly elected lawmakers, then nothing will change.”