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Macao disqualifies pro-democracy groups from legislative election

Three incumbents among about 20 candidates barred from September polls

Police officers raise the flags of China and Macao in the territory's Golden Lotus Square.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Macao's Electoral Affairs Commission on Friday disqualified all pro-democracy candidates seeking to run in the city's Sept. 12 legislative election.

Tong Hio Fong, the commission's chairman, told reporters at a hastily called news conference the body had found "evidence" to indicate that over 20 candidates were not qualified to participate in the election because they were "not upholding the Basic Law" and "not loyal" to the government of Macao.

The decision in the densely populated territory, known for its glitzy casinos, came at a time when Beijing is further tightening its control over social and political freedoms in neighboring Hong Kong, which has postponed its own legislative polls until Dec. 19.

When asked by the media what the evidence is, Tong said he had obtained "relevant information from the national security bureau" that enabled him to make the decision, but he refused to disclose any details, citing pending judicial procedures.

Tong did not mention any of the candidates by name, but all the current pan-democratic lawmakers intending to seek reelection -- Antonio Ng Kuok Cheong, Jose Maria Pereira Coutinho, and Sulu Sou Ka Hou -- were believed to be disqualified.

The New Macau Progressive Association -- a pro-democratic political group whose members include Sou, the youngest ever lawmaker to be elected in the previous election in 2017 -- said on its Facebook page that it have received an official notification from the election committee that all five of its candidates do "not enjoy the right to be elected." The political group said it is gathering more information while preparing for "further administrative and legal procedure."

Scott Chiang, seeking to succeed veteran pro-democracy legislator Au Kam San, said on his Facebook page that "the big stone has been dropped to kill the crabs," suggesting authorities were trying to shatter the pro-democracy camp's election hopes.

Macao's legislature consists of 33 members, but only 14 are elected by popular vote. In order to be candidates, legislators must go through a separate vetting process, but since the handover of sovereignty from Portugal to China in 1999, the pan-democratic camp, though small, has been allowed to participate in elections once every four years.

Of the remaining legislators, 12 are selected from functional constituencies based on five business and social groups, while seven are appointed by the chief executive.

Asked why the pro-democracy camp's narrow window for political participation has been slammed shut, Tong said the decision was "based on the issue of qualification examinations for this election." As to whether the decision was connected to the current political climate in China, the election committee head said it was "handled according to the law."

Both Macao and Hong Kong are supposed to be governed under the principle of "one country, two systems" whereby both operate under Chinese sovereignty but allowed a "high degree of autonomy." However, for historical reasons the Basic Laws, or constitutions, of the two territories differ fundamentally. While Hong Kong's constitution states an "ultimate aim" to eventually elect all members of the legislature through universal suffrage, Macao's Basic Law lacks such a statement.

Despite this objective, the democratic elements of Hong Kong's political system were reduced in an electoral overhaul initiated by the National People's Congress in China in March and later passed by the territory's legislature in the virtual absence of pro-democratic members, who were had either been disqualified or resigned,

Under the new system, the number of popularly elected seats in the legislature will be slashed to 20, making for only 22% of the total number of seats, compared to 57% in the last election in 2016. This will be the legislature's lowest directly elected proportion since the colonial era. The remaining seats will be assigned to the pro-Beijing Election Committee, as well as industry and social groups.

In addition, all candidates are required to pass two rounds of screening by national security bodies and the committee, also controlled by Beijing, to ensure they are "sufficiently patriotic," uphold the Basic Law, and show loyalty to the government.

A legislative election in Hong Kong was supposed to take place last September, but it was postponed for a year, with authorities citing the pandemic. Since then, the election system was overhauled and the election date was pushed back to Dec. 19, 2021.

Additional reporting by Cora Zhu

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