Voter turnout for Macau’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 Macau 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.
Election officials blamed the low turnout on the COVID-19 pandemic and the great heat. “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.
However, analysts note that the city reported its last coronavirus case six weeks ago, with only 63 cases since the start of the pandemic and no deaths.
As for the temperature, election day reached 34 degrees Celsius, just above the seasonal average.
The election flop in the city of casinos comes after a local court in July excluded 21 pro-democracy candidates from running, ostensibly for violating Macau’s constitution and refusing to pledge allegiance to Macau Special Autonomous Region, which replaced the former Portuguese colony after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1999.
Like in neighbouring Hong Kong, Macau authorities have targeted various local pro-democracy leaders and activists.
According to police, the disqualified politicians have ties to pro-democracy Hong Kong leaders and took part in a vigil on 4 June in the former British colony to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre.
They are also guilty of visiting Taiwan during the island’s last presidential election and commemorating Nobel laureate dissident Liu Xiaobo.
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 Macau.”
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.
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 Macau’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 Macau’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.
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”.
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.”