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Plunge in Macao voter turnout carries signal for Hong Kong

Participation falls below 50% for first time after 21 candidates disqualified

The Macao Electoral Affairs Commission attributed the decline in voting to bad weather and pandemic travel controls. (Courtesy Macao Government Information Bureau)

HONG KONG -- Voter turnout for Macao's legislative election plunged to a record low after most opposition hopefuls were disqualified, an ominous signal as officials in nearby Hong Kong prepare for year-end polls on similar terms.

According to preliminary data from the Macao Electoral Affairs Commission on Monday, only 42.4% of eligible voters participated in Sunday's public polls. This marked a drop of around 15 percentage points from the previous Legislative Assembly election in 2017 and the first time the turnout rate has fallen below 50% since the city's return to Chinese control from Portugal in 1999.

"It was a really hot day, and a thunderstorm in the afternoon made some people less willing to go to the ballot," said Commission Chairman Tong Hio-fong, adding that some potential voters were stuck outside the city due to COVID-19 pandemic travel controls.

Tong downplayed the impact of his agency's decision to bar 21 candidates, mostly from the pro-democratic opposition. Macao's highest court last month confirmed the exclusion of the group, which included two incumbents, for allegedly failing to uphold the city's constitution or for showing disloyalty.

But Ivan Choy, senior lecturer of government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the candidate cull was "one of the main reasons" for the drop in turnout.

The mass disqualification "has upset and frustrated many young voters who refused to go to vote," said Sonny Lo, a political commentator and the author of "Political Change in Macao."

Bruce Kwong, assistant professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau, said the sharp rise in blank votes to 3,141, compared with 1,083 in 2013 and 944 in 2017, was also a result of the disqualification. "Casting a blank ballot is a universal action by voters to indicate dissatisfaction," he said in an email.

Asked about the low showing after he cast his own ballot on Sunday, Macao Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng said, "It is up to each individual to evaluate what their civic responsibilities are." Ho previously served 10 years as a legislator, representing employers.

A spokesperson from Beijing's representative office in Macao issued a statement on Monday celebrating the election result. The people in Macao "enthusiastically participated in the voting [in a] harmonious and orderly manner," under the new electoral format of disqualifying candidates deemed disloyal to Beijing, the statement said.

Jose Maria Pereira Coutinho, the only pro-democracy leaning incumbent allowed to run in the legislative polls, saw his ticket gather 27% more votes than four years ago. Running as Nova Esperanca, or New Hope, the group secured a second seat for the first time under Macao's proportional representation system.

Coutinho has avoided public comment on how Nova Esperanca survived July's candidate purge. But he said he would respect the court's decision on the disqualifications and that oversight of government affairs would "be weakened" by the departure of other pro-democracy incumbents. Coutinho is the only major ethnic minority leader remaining in Macao's political landscape, which Lo said was "practically and symbolically important." 

The Macanese legislature consists of 33 members, with 14 elected by popular vote, 12 selected by five business and social groups and seven appointed by the chief executive. Although there were no competitive races for the sectoral seats, turnout reached 87.3% among eligible voters.

Among the winners was Angela Leong, fourth wife of late gaming tycoon Stanley Ho and co-chairman of casino group SJM Holdings, who previously held a directly elected seat but will now represent the culture and sports sector. Candidates from a group representing gaming workers were among those disqualified from the election.

Hong Kong officials have been concerned for months that turnout there could also decline steeply when voters go to the polls on Dec. 19, tarnishing perceptions of the legitimacy of the city's Legislative Council in the wake of a political overhaul that has slashed the share of publicly elected seats and set high barriers against participation by opposition candidates.

"The pro-Beijing establishment will have to think about if the voter turnout is too poor, it will hurt the legitimation and the credibility of the election, and the [vote] share of the Hong Kong democrats is much larger than that of Macao," Choy said on Monday.

Under legislation adopted in May, anyone found to have incited others to boycott an election or spoil their ballots can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. In recent days, some pro-government figures have warned that opposition parties that bar members from running could be prosecuted under the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing last year.

Sectoral polls for the city's Election Committee, which will vet all legislative candidates as well as select 40 of its own members for the next 90-member legislative session, are to be held next Sunday.

The constitutions, or Basic Laws, of Macao and Hong Kong differ in that Hong Kong's includes a statement that the "ultimate aim" of political development is the eventual election of all legislators by universal suffrage while Macao's does not.

The low turnout and high blank vote in Macao will exert pressure on Hong Kong authorities, analysts said. "If the election loses credibility, that will influence the confidence of foreign investors, and will shake Hong Kong's status as the international financial center," Kwong said.

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