2009 Elections Special
Vasco Fong’s Commission has authorised the lists to transport voters in chartered buses. Some believe the measure could prejudice the vote. Meanwhile, the Observatório Cívico (Civil Watch) complains of vanishing posters, and Angela Leong’s List 10 yesterday removed its propaganda from the Casino Lisboa.
by Paulo Barbosa
translated by Ray Granlund
This Sunday, the lists competing in the elections will be allowed to make buses available to “facilitate the transport of voters.” This was the ruling handed down yesterday by the Election Commission of the Legislative Assembly (CAEAL). The Commission President, Vasco Fong, stressed in a recent press conference that there is nothing in the Electoral Law prohibiting such a practice.
Some are questioning both the necessity and the relevance of allowing the lists to transport voters to the polling booths. For sociologist Paulo Godinho, “It’s strange that the Election Commission, which has been excessively strict in several other areas, would consider such a thing to be within the norm.” A long-time student of the electoral process, he believes that collecting voters in buses belonging to the lists is “a means by which the vote could be prejudiced” and even “a way of controlling access to the polls.”
Godinho argues the procedure should not be allowed, and he cannot comprehend its usefulness “in such a small region, in which travel is so easy.” The sociologist draws comparison with the election process in Portugal, in which a similar situation “would not be allowed, even if there happened to be no rule specifically preventing it.”
According to Vasco Fong, providing transportation particularly benefits individuals who have difficulty getting to the polling stations, and it is only authorised on the condition that “the services not be obligatory, leaving the voters the absolute right to choose, and that there be no food, beverage or any other amenity offered in exchange for a vote.“ The CAEAL directive further clarifies that “the soliciting of votes, directly or indirectly, at the pick-up points or in the vehicles themselves” is prohibited. In other words, affiliates of the lists may not suggest voting for a particular list and may not display slogans, symbols or stickers referring to the candidates or lists. As the official campaign period will be closed before election day, the dissemination of election-related messages on the internet or by mobile phone will also be illegal.
Vasco Fong reiterated that the Electoral Law punishes “whosoever promises or grants employment or any other object or benefit, in an attempt to persuade a person to vote or abstain from voting, with a prison sentence of one to eight years.” Anyone selling their vote can be imprisoned for up to three years.
Who will verify that these rules are being followed? The CAEAL President promises a reinforced police presence on the streets this Sunday and co-operation between the police forces and the commission. “The police will investigate cases of misconduct, and, should there be complaints, we will direct the cases to the relevant judiciary authorities,” he declared.
Complaints of another sort have already been lodged with the CAEAL. List 6, the Observatório Cívico (Civil Watch), reports that some of its posters, put up in official locations designated for the display of propaganda, were “intentionally taken down.” According to Agnes Lam’s list, the situation recurred even after the posters were replaced. “These designated spots are public places and should be protected,” the list believes, “but the CAEAL has done nothing to that effect.” Vasco Fong confirmed that the CAEAL was notified, and he brought to mind that “the destruction of election propaganda is a criminal act.” In another case, and in response to a question posed to the CAEAL by Ponto Final, Angela Leong’s List 10, affiliated with the gaming sector, yesterday removed the posters it had illegally affixed to the exterior of the Casino Lisboa. The CAEAL president confirmed having been in contact with the list’s representative and said “the case is being addressed.”
Vasco Fong made yet another appeal to all the lists, asking them to take down all election posters not displayed in designated areas by midnight tonight – the hour that officially closes the campaign and begins the period of reflection. If the posters are not taken down, it is expected that police and CIvic and Municipal Affairs Bureau staff will expedite their removal.
Voting fraudster sent to prison after two years on the run
A man condemned in 2006 for illegal possession of voting cards in the 2005 legislative elections was rearrested yesterday and sent to Coloane prison to serve his sentence.
Officials of the Commission against Corruption (CCAC) tracked down the man and arrested him by Court’s order.
The man, named Sio, was tried and condemned in November in 2006 for having collected several voting cards during the elections of 2005 to secure the vote on a specific candidate who was not identified by the CCAC. The defendant always denied any wrongdoing and appealed to the Second Instance Court, but his condemnation was confirmed.
According to the CCAC, Sio will now spend 1 year and six months behind bars.
THE KICK OFF: The election campaign began the morning of Saturday, September 5th, with a general assembly on Senado Square, during which the 16 lists of candidates were presented to the public. With each one granted a maximum of ten minutes, the lists outlined their political platforms – some in song – asking for the votes of the 250,000 electors selected to participate in the Legislative Assembly Elections this year. The campaign activities organised by the various lists have been taking place throughout the region, from Coloane to the Border Gate, over the last two weeks.
FAMILY FEUD: Lists 7 and 10 were at odds right from the start of the campaign on the question of reuniting Macau families with sons and daughters blocked from residing in the MSAR. Chan Meng Kam of the Associação dos Cidadãos Unidos de Macau (United Citizens Association of Macau) took issue with the fact that Angela Leong, leader of the Nova União para Desenvolvimento de Macau (New Union for the Development of Macau), arranged a meeting with these families, promising them her support. Kam’s group maintains that this cause has long been theirs, and that it is one to which Leong has contributed nothing in recent years.
CASINOS IN THE CAMPAIGN: The operator has not confirmed it, but various Melco Crown employees appear to have received emails soliciting support for Wong Seng Hong, number two on Angela Leong’s List 10 and a consultant for the concessionaire. “Melco Crown Entertainment merely encourages our employees to vote,” a company spokesperson said. The Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau issued a warning to SJM (Sociedade de Jogos de Macau), as well, after several of the operator’s croupiers were seen wearing shirts with List 10 propaganda while working.
ELECTRONIC ASSAULT: It seems that more than a few of the lists vying for election have been attacked with computer viruses, embedded in emails sent to members’ addresses. When the message is opened, the virus erases all data saved on the computer. The authors of these attacks appear to be working in the guise of journalists. One of the lists, Agnes Lam’s Observatório Cívico (Civil Watch), complained of having received dozens of these messages in the past two to three months.
CHANTS AGAINST CHEONG: Ng Sek Io and Lee Kin Yun, candidates for the Associação de Activismo para a Democracia (Activism for Democracy Association), were at the heart of a very tense episode just days before the official start of the election campaign. During a “clean election” rally organised by the Commission Against Corruption (CCAC), they shouted insults at the commission and its leader until being forcibly removed from the venue by security. Commissioner Cheong U would play down the incident, saying, “Everyone is entitled to express their own opinions.”
ON DEAF EARS: Throughout the campaign the Election Commission of the Legislative Assembly has issued various directives aimed at preventing the lists of candidates from skirting the law in an attempt to win more votes. The majority of the complaints received thus far involve hosting ‘banquets’ aimed at voters’ stomachs and affixing illegal posters. The commission has threatened those posting propaganda in unauthorised locations with a maximum of three years in prison, yet the signage continues to appear throughout the city, from shop windows to the façades of the main casinos.
KWAN FIGHTS CALUMNY: The leader of the União para o Desenvolvimento (Union for Development) says she has been the target of a smear campaign aimed at hurting her chances in the election. According to the candidate, she was libelled by several posters associating her with criticism of the Government’s wealth partaking scheme. Kwan Tsui Hang asserted she is not against the mailing out of cheques to residents and says she believes voters will not allow themselves to be influenced by the false propaganda. She has submitted complaints to the Election Commission and the police.
DOGS AND CATS HAVE GUTS: Observatório Cívico (Civil Watch) has taken up the banner for animal welfare causes, which appear for the first time on the political scene in this election campaign. Collaborating with Macau’s Society for the Protection of Animals (ANIMA), Association for the Protection of Abandoned Animals (APAAM) and Meow Space, the list, headed by Agnes Lam, aims to raise consciousness about the mistreatment and abandonment of pets in the region. Pets can be seen sporting the list’s pink-coloured t-shirts, with the slogan “Have Guts” written across their backs.
LIES AND VIDEOTAPE: In addition to Kwan Tsui Hang, Deputy Au Kam San has affirmed being the target of a smear campaign. A video circulated on the internet accuses the candidate for the Associação de Novo Macau Democrático (New Democratic Macau Association) of having ceased criticism of Chui Sai On in exchange for alleged political benefits. Au Kam San is also accused on certain web forums of having diverted funds collected at support vigils for the Tiananmen student movement, in 1989. The candidate denies all this, rejecting, as well, other accusations that he had joined the Falun Gong movement.
MORE IDEAS ON TV: In addition to the TDM airtime granted by law to each list of candidates, the 2009 campaign saw the public broadcaster present several, more extended debates. The Chinese channels organised a total of 16 sessions in which each candidate debated twice with different opponents, and this time, the public was present at the TDM studios. According to the channels’ directors, “more ideas” were discussed. The Portuguese channel also extended an invitation to each of the lists in the race, but Casimiro Pinto’s Voz Plural (Plural Voices of Macau) and Pereira Coutinho’s Nova Esperança (New Hope) were the only ones to respond.
GROUP 15 LOSES CANDIDATE: The New Macau Democratic Association, led by Au Kam San, had one if it’s candidates withdrawn from the elections after being sentenced to three years and three months imprisonment for fraud. Ng Seng Fong was lined up as candidate number four, and explained she only had knowledge of the verdict after it was published on the Internet and in the local press. The group says that they find the release of the information, just a few days before elections, strange, to say the least. The Judiciary Police is investigating how the information, some of which belonged to its data base, ended up in the digital forum.
“We’re not here to take votes away from anyone. That is not our intention. This year, we’ve been facilitating the appearance of new faces on various lists, and that is something very important for the political development of Macau (…)”
Casimiro Pinto, First Candidate for Voz Plural – Gentes de Macau (Plural Voices of Macau)
“There are at least four or five lists with a Portuguese presence that are merely going through the motions. Afterwards they’ll be rewarded with contracts or a position of leadership in public office.”
José Pereira Coutinho, First Candidate for Nova Esperança (New Hope)
“Our aim is to provide maximum potential to the votes of our electors, in order to better serve them. In the last elections we had 23,000 votes, and even that didn’t allow us to win a third seat. That was a big waste of votes.”
Scott Chiang, Fifth Candidate for the Associação de Novo Macau Democrático (New Democratic Macau Association)
“Now, the majority supports democratic development. Lists 2, 4, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15 all make reference to the democratisation of the political system in their manifestos. This is a situation much different from that of four years ago.”
Ng Kuok Cheong, First Candidate for the Associação de Próspero Macau Democrático (Prosperous Democratic Macau Association)
“The Government lacks a consistent system for the management of Macau’s labour needs. We suggest the Government adopt more scientific methods for the importation of workers.”
William Kuan Vai Lam, Second Candidate for the União para o Progresso e Desenvolvimento (Union for Progress and Development)
“On the 7th of this month, after campaign activities had finished for the night, the drivers of our campaign vehicles responded to strangers who were calling them over. They were threatened that if they did not discontinue their activities, the three vehicles would be incinerated.”
Ng Sek Io, First Candidate for the Associação de Activismo para a Democracia (Activism for Democracy Association)
“I don’t get many votes because of the system. Defending migrant workers makes me look stupid in this campaign, and people ask me why I hold that line if I want to win votes.”
Paul Pun, First Candidate for the Associação de Apoio à Comunidade e Proximidade do Povo (Association for Helping the Community and Engagement with the People)
“Everyone is doing the same thing – giving away coupons and hosting banquets – but I’m the only one criticised. I shouldn’t be the only one being judged here. What about the others?”
Chan Meng Kam, First Candidate for Associação dos Cidadãos Unidos de Macau
“First it’s necessary to listen to the people’s thoughts on the subject [universal suffrage]. Just as in any business or association, we first have to consult the members and get their approval before moving forward with changes.”
Melinda Chan, First Candidate for Aliança P’ra Mudança (Alliance for Change)
“Macau’s laws are outdated and obscure, and that has a direct influence on the operation of small-sized businesses.”
Mak Soi Kun, First Candidate for the União Macau-Guangdong (Macau-Guangdong Union)
“Our priority is to extend the fiscal authority of the Legislative Assembly. It should be greater, given that the entity is not fulfilling its role.”
Agnes Lam, First Candidate for Observatório Cívico (Civil Watch)
My Election Endorsement
Macau is at a crossroads as it approaches next Sunday’s elections.
The development model followed in recent years, based on pure economic liberalism, has generated unprecedented growth, but it has also uncovered glaring mistakes.
The gap between rich and poor has clearly worsened, the wild speculation in the property market has made the lives of thousands of families much more difficult to endure, and there have been countless attacks on the patrimony and the environment.
The economic crisis and the Ao Man Long case brought a bit of quietness to the pace of growth, but a return to the former political and economic environment is perfectly possible as soon as there are consistent signs of recovery. Going back to the same path or choosing another, is one of the issues up for discussion in these elections.
The Legislative Assembly, as we know it today, has no competence to impose a specific development model on our society. Legislators have no say on the approval of the government, on budget matters or on political reforms without the previous approval of the executive. These are all restrictions stamped in the Basic Law.
But the Nam Van chamber still has an effective purpose: to be the platform that echoes the anxieties of Macau’s population. And it can actually do much more in that area.
Therefore, the question that I bring here to the discussion, and to which I will provide my personal answer, has to do with who are the best candidates to defend a development path which will avoid all the collateral damage that we have witnessed for the past 10 years.
Let’s start then, by an exercise of exclusion. There are many lists linked to the casinos and to the business world in general, the most important being the ones headed by Chan Meng Kam, Angela Leong and Melinda Chan, all figures from the SJM universe, but with high discrepancies among them. They promise more of the same and are mainly interested in the current status quo. Plus, the business world is already well represented through the indirect suffrage (10 legislators out of 29), and will receive a boost when the Chief Executive nominates his seven representatives in the assembly. Why would the assembly need more of these legislators?
Traditional lists, from the workers and kaifong (traditional Chinese neighbourhoods) sectors, are ideologically distant from the political system that I would like to see implemented in Macau. As a matter of fact, they are in their own way, strict defenders of the present status quo with an historic irony worth noting: these hard-leftists have been the main supporters of the pro-business governments of the SAR during the past decade.
I admit that both the workers and the neighbors’ associations perform an important daily job, but they can keep doing it without a larger presence in the Legislative Assembly. And even though Kwan Tsui Hang has been one of the most intervening and effective legislators, both workers and kaifongs representatives do little more than vote for the government’s initiatives. These are yet another two lists which, if elected, will team up with the legislators nominated by the Chief Executive and the ones elected by the votes of the associations.
In both the lists with strong links to the Portuguese community, New Hope is the only one with a real chance to elect one legislator, even two, if José Pereira Coutinho’s message passes through. I admire his combativeness and congratulate the tenacity with which he defends certain causes that I myself subscribe to, namely the fight for individual rights and freedoms. Had he decided to open his list to social groups other that trade activists, he would have been a serious option for me. He didn’t, but I wish him luck, nevertheless.
What’s valid for Pereira Coutinho, is also valid for the democrats.
Ng Kuok Cheong is a man who has fought endlessly for democracy in Macau for the past 20 years, and who has very clear ideas about what is necessary to turn Macau into a fairer society. What’s more, he has the merit of being consistent in his modesty and principles, a rare quality among leaders with many years in politics.
Less positive though is the way he keeps the association he leads closed to exterior influences, despite the fact that many democrats of different backgrounds would certainly join Ng’s association, were he more receptive. But his worst trait is the permanent pressure he places on non-resident workers, thinking that by acting in this way, he’s defending Macau residents’ best interests. Well, he is not. Non-resident workers greatly contribute to Macau’s development, only to be denied fundamental rights. To force them to use tags identifying them as foreign workers, was just the gravest insult directed at them, and unfortunately Ng Kuok Cheong didn’t know to detach himself from this sad initiative.
At the antipodes of this attitude, we have Caritas chairman Paul Pun Chi Meng. He knows that the defence of non-resident workers will hardly give him votes. Nevertheless, he assumes the political onus as a moral imperative, which deserves respect and admiration. He also stands out by presenting his political program in the Braille system. Even though there are no more that 100 blind people in Macau, Pun makes a point to remember them.
It’s a lesson to the government, that once again didn’t prepare Braille-reading ballots. If he had a better chance of being elected, I would certainly consider supporting him with my vote.
I’m therefore left with the Civil Watch list, headed by the academic and analyst Agnes Lam. And I am voting for her list, for personal and political reasons.
Starting with the former, I have known Agnes Lam since 1995, when she entered TDM where I had already been working for a few years. I was immediately very impressed by her passion for journalism, her immense curiosity at all times, the companionship she always showed, and the importance she always gave to a story well told. I worked with her on a documentary about the “One, Two, Three” incident to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in Macau. The Chinese version produced by Agnes was highly praised in the local media. Sadly my Portuguese version was left in a drawer for years, without any explanation for this absurd journalistic censorship to this day.
The Chinese daily newspaper Ou Mun foresaw a brilliant professional career for Agnes Lam, an appraisal that I, knowing her well, completely subscribed to.
As for the political reasons for my choice, I believe in her battle for the democratization process in Macau, for social justice and the unending fight against corruption. You can argue that these are causes common to other lists. But none has the vibrant cultural dimension that the Civil Watch list has. If Agnes Lam is elected, she won’t need to be briefed about the main problems that threaten Macau’s identity. That’s the most important concern for her list. Macau needs a voice in the Legislative Assembly to effectively name and shame the many attacks to the cultural and historical patrimony of the territory, at a time when the SAR is being pressed to proceed with wild and unregulated development. Agnes Lam is the ideal person to take on this responsibility. Her career, her communication skills, and the people who are campaigning with her attest to her credibility. That is why I am voting for her.
And I have chosen to make my preference public because, having to give my opinion every single day on current issues, it would not make sense not to do it, when it matters the most.
My endorsement is nevertheless strictly personal. This is my opinion, which should not influence any member of my staff. In fact, as I have explained through this opinion article, there are plenty of reasons for the readers to choose other candidacies. But it’s important that their decisions are free, without misplaced pressures or illegal solicitations. They need to vote with a free conscience. That’s what I will be doing on Sunday.
Does it matter who I vote for?
For the past week, when you walk along the street, the chances of having someone stuff a pamphlet into your hand has been very high. I have had many given to me. Some are beautifully designed, colour printed materials, while some of them are merely a piece of A5 paper with hardly any design. They all have a similar content however, i.e. the political platform or manifesto of different groups seeking to run for an office in the Legislative Assembly of Macau. There are in fact, 16 groups, amounting to 132 candidates, running for 12 seats in this coming Legislative Assembly election.
With a cursory review of this literature, one will find a surprising similarity in the content, even though they are obviously from different or even opposing groups. Issues such as “opposing collusion between business and the Government and the transfer of benefits”; “anti-corruption”: “regulating foreign labour” etc. are found in almost each and every manifesto of these 16 political groups. Given that these groups are classified by the community as the pro-government, the pan-democratic, and the opposition, or even the “radicals”, their views on governance should be quite different, so why such consensus?
A manifesto is the political statement that reflects the ideology, principles or even desired action of a particular political group. These statements derive from how the political group views the problems of the community and their proposed action to solve these problems. It is one of the means by which the political group attempts to communicate with its constituency and try to convince them that they are their best choice to vote for. In short, the function of a manifesto in the case of the Macau Legislative Assembly elections, is to introduce the public to how the particular political group reflects their views on the present condition of the society, and how they can best help to deal with or rectify an undesirable situation, like corruption.
By reading through all these leaflets that pass through our hands, one can easily discern that the administration of the Macau government for the past years has not been totally satisfactory. The government is been seen by the people as having transferred benefits between the officials and the rich tycoons, particularly those in the gambling industry and real estate. The infamous corruption case of Mr. Ao Man Long, and the lavish spending on the East Asian Games, illustrates that the government has not preformed its duties to the satisfaction of the public. The complaints, among others, are a lack of transparency in its decision making processes, and allowing high ranking officials to take advantage of the “dark box” operations.
The massive increase in the amount of foreign labour as compared with a constant rate of unemployment (around 4%), is another major concern or rather source of dissatisfaction among the people in the street. The local unions have been fighting hard on this issue and trying to pass legislation but to no avail. This issue, like the transfer of benefits, thus easily gains entrance onto all manifestos if the political groups want their constituency to know that they are with the people, and they know that they not satisfied with the government. The message is ‘if you vote for me, the situation will change’. Again, it is the lack of transparency as well as a lack of prompt action from the government when faced with labour issues that provides ammunition for the political groups to fire at the government. Furthermore, bureaucratic response and red tape in dealing with such issues, worsens the situation rather than alleviates the problem. The government, however, adopts the former approach!
If you genuinely want to know what the concerns of the people are, what problems the community is facing, and what the political situation of Macau is like, my advice is to read the leaflets that get stuffed into your hands these days. You will get the gist of the problems.
I am still pondering why all the campaign groups have similar statements in their manifestos over these issues. I mean, even the groups sponsored by so-called traditional organisations or the pro-government groups, speak the same language as the opposition party or the radicals. Why? I can understand the opposition groups, they have to do better or they will lose their market share. Why do all the pro government groups share the same platform with the radicals? Are they just trying to uphold harmonious relationships? Is the situation in respect to the above issues that bad and that obvious that they can’t evade it, or they would alienate their voters? Then, why can’t the government see that it is not doing the job it is supposed to? If it can see it, why aren’t these issues being acted upon.
One thing I am glad about, having mentally walked myself through this labyrinth, I know that no matter which group I vote for, I will have someone to monitor and work on the solutions to these problems for me! They put it in black and white on paper, almost all of them! Yes, I am happy and content. So, does it really matter which group or candidate I vote for?
* Associate Professor at Polytechnic Institute of Macau
The Problems of the Electoral Administration in Combating Money Politics
Eilo YU Wing-yat*
Macau’s legislative elections have been contaminated with money politics for a decade. The public showed their intolerance against vote-buying as well as other electoral irregularities after the 2005 elections. Responding to public demand, the Macau government introduced various measures to avoid electoral irregularities, like the increase in penalties for the contravention of election laws, the cancellation of voter cards, as well as the new arrangements at polling stations. In addition, the government invested in anti-corruption propaganda in the 2009 legislative elections. For sure, the authorities have demonstrated their efforts in fighting against electoral corruption.
Nevertheless, these reforms have not enhanced the ability of authorities to fight against electoral corruption, and irregularities are still prevalent in the 2009 elections. For instance, candidates started their electoral engineering and mobilisation prior to the official campaign period. Social groups facilitated opportunities to candidates for their electoral promotion through mass gatherings and banquets in which gifts and cash coupons might have been involved. Ironically, the subsidy program by the Macau Foundation provided good opportunities to social groups campaigning for candidates through the activities for the celebration of 60th anniversary of PRC establishment and 10th anniversary of Macau’s handover. Candidates’ posters were hoisted in public areas that are prohibited by the election laws. However, neither the Electoral Affairs Commission, the police force nor the Commission Against Corruption (CCAC) took action against them. Thus, electoral campaigning is continuously materialised.
Although the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) received 25 complaints about irregularities, no concrete action was taken to punish people involved. It declared misfeasance in 5 out of the 25 cases, but it did not identify candidate lists involved and no sanctions were imposed to penalise them for mal-practice. Ridiculously, Mr. Fong Man-chong, Chair of the EAC, explained that the mal-practice of candidates did not violate election laws but might have implications on the fairness of the elections. In addition, Mr. Fong discouraged the media from reporting these charges and said that media reporting might merely help campaigning for those candidates involved. However, the authorities failed to recognize the transparency issue in the elections and ignored the fact that electorates could judge the mal-practice and impose sanctions on the candidates through their ballots. In this election, many candidates support a transparent and accountable government, while the EAC’s decision disproved this trend. The explanation of EAC was not justifiable and may project an image that the authorities dare not confront candidates who are involved in mal-practice. Unintentionally, the decision of the EAC may encourage electoral irregularities, as there will be no punishing of candidates and they need not pay a price for mal-practice.
Despite the reforms by the MSAR government, electoral irregularities are still prevalent in the 2009 elections. The new measures have not yet proved the ability of authorities in combating mal-practice in the elections. The EAC is the chief agency managing the elections but it seems to be a “paper tiger” and is incapable of halting irregularities. The CCAC and police force have not acted proactively against mal-practice in the elections. Yet, the authorities seem to be at a loss as to what to do against electoral irregularities. Legal reform is not the unique ingredient for that, but has to be combined with an effective enforcement of it. Contradictorily, the various acts by the authorities might not help, but harm a clean election. They have to look before they leap and take actions aimed at the root of problem, otherwise, the contamination by money politics will persist in the legislative elections.
* Associate Professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration, University of Macau
I think, therefore I vote
In 1998, while I was preparing a documentary for TDM and RTP about the first anniversary of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region, I had the chance to interview Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the then chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), the largest pro-Beijing party from our neighbouring territory.
During the interview, I questioned him about the election process in China and how the citizens were unable to express their opinions through universal suffrage. “But they can clearly express themselves and there are direct elections,” Tsang answered. I thought he had misunderstood me and so I repeated the question. But he had understood me very well and kept explaining with that annoyingly patronizing tone used by Beijing’s bureaucrats, that the Chinese people express their will through local party cells to select local leaders. This practice is then used up the system until the highest hierarchy, a process always legitimized by the popular will, he insisted, but without the need for universal suffrage as practiced in the West. A few options crossed my mind: either he was silly, a firm believer in what he was saying, or he was bluntly joking with me. Maybe it was a mixture of the three as Mr. Tsang spoke to me on that day. But I think that this episode illustrates the main line of the orthodox Chinese thinking, which basically hasn’t change in 11 years and still refuses the concept of, “one citizen, one vote.”
It also makes me smile that Mr. Tsang is now president of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and I hope, God willing, that he won’t go any further.
Let me be clear; I can’t accept cultural explanations, popular choices “à la Tsang,” or the alleged lack of civic standards among the population, in order to constantly delay the introduction of universal suffrage, here in Hong Kong and even in China.
I come from a country where in 1975, during what was designated as the “Ongoing Revolutionary Period” (PREC in the Portuguese acronym), seamstresses’ ateliers were turned into fridge factories (or vice-versa) in the name of the leftist revolution.
Did this contribute to the economic chaos of the country? Of course it did and Portugal paid a high price to recover from it.
But when the Portuguese were invited to freely cast their ballots after half-century of dictatorship, the most unprepared voters in the world (similar to the above arguments that some analysts use in Macau to refuse universal suffrage), showed a surprising democratic maturity, nipping in the bud the formation of a communist dictatorship and electing a parliament as balanced and it could be, considering that in those days, political parties sprouted up like mushrooms. You might say that this was in 1975/76 when ideologies all over the world prevailed over common sense, the latter considered in Portugal as “reactionary” (and therefore bad and connected to the fascist regime).
Nevertheless, yesterday as today, the right to vote is “the people’s weapon” to express who they want to govern them, whether we’re in Portugal, Macau or Mainland China.
Any other argument is polished rhetoric or downright propaganda to perpetuate oligarchs and cliques, and a power more interested in sharing the riches among a few and ignoring the needs of the majority.
There are many explanations for why the Chinese leaders fear universal voting. I won’t bother you with those, but I am nevertheless sure that if President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao decided to submit themselves to general elections today, they would probably obtain a landslide victory. The Uighurs and Tibetans would not vote for them, but in the cold electoral statistics of China, Tibet and Xingjian wouldn’t make any difference. This is partly explained because the current leaders are part of the only institutionalized political organization that the Chinese people have known for 60 years, a “communism of sorts” as we know it in contemporary China.
What’s interesting in Macau’s case, and in my particular case, is that this unique form of communism that embraces the market economy but refuses to accept the popular democratic aspirations attached to it, allows me to vote. I’m not grateful to Deng Xiao Ping for Tiananmen, but I have to praise him for the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.
Macau gives me the right to vote as a Portuguese citizen, which is impossible to find in any former Portuguese colony. And even in the European Union, a self-declared bastion of democratic values, the best I can aim for, if I live abroad, but within the Union, is to vote in the local elections.
During the seven years I lived in the United Kingdom, I was eligible to pay my taxes fully, but discriminated against when it came to voting in the legislative elections.
The bottom line is that there are no perfect systems and Macau has a long way to go until it reaches some sort of normal functioning in terms of democratic institutions.
But let me challenge you, dear reader: our direct vote only counts to decide 12 places in the Legislative Assembly. It’s not much to change the status quo, but it’s a start. The universal suffrage debate is out there, despite the law and government constraints. One should exert their right to vote, especially within the Portuguese community, as a mark of Macau’s identity and difference, and a mark of a community, which aims for a fairer and more balanced society. Vote for whoever you want, but please do it this coming Sunday! What is not acceptable is to spend the whole year whining about the political inconsistencies of Macau and then ignore one of the few rights that this bizarre democracy allows us to have, by favouring instead a stroll or a swim at Coloane.
Because Macau has suffered considerable changes since 2005, the year of the most recent legislative elections in the city, the ballot of next Sunday has naturally awoken the interest of those who pay attention to these aspects of political life. More than providing substantial modifications in the composition of the Legislative Assembly, these elections will give us the answers to a few questions about the Macau population’s perception of its politics and policies.
As we have seen a growing social controversy in these last years, some believe that the so-called democratic field will be the great winners of the 2009 suffrage. This means that not only might the traditional pro-democrats have one more legislator, but also that the Legislative Assembly might have other members who share similar convictions.
If this theory becomes a reality – the voter tendency of the new electors is the big mystery of next Sunday – the Assembly might conquer a new dynamic in terms of debate, but the truth is that the final result will be more or less the same. It’s here that, in these matters of local political life, mathematics becomes more relevant. With no changes in the electoral system, the 12 legislators, who theoretically speaking represent the popular will, will not be able to introduce important changes if the other 17, closer to the economic sector and to the institutional power, maintain the position that they have had until now.
Thus, the elections are mainly a barometer of the way the population relates to politics. And there plenty of indicators to be observed, from the voter turnout and the voter tendency, to the number of electoral corruption cases that might be counted in the future.
The fact that these 12 legislators won’t have, in the short term, a significant effect in terms of legislative production, does not however devalue the suffrage. Similarly to those held in 2005, these elections will be useful for understanding what type of MSAR we have – if the voters see themselves in the candidates on offer, or if there are many who simply prefer to exchange their essential right for a few dollars; if there’s any hope that one day the system will change and these things of the political life will come to belong to everyone and not only to a few.
What about the winners, the newcomers? It would be good if – contrary to what has been happening in several cases – they truly esteem the fact that they were elected by the popular will. That they would have the determination to finish with the defence of their small lobby groups that Macau doesn’t need, but has plenty of. That they would not forget to speak in the legislative organ on subjects that concern everyone. That they always keep in mind the functions for which they were elected. That they will become legislators, a concept that goes beyond the word that is so pompously written on business cards.