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    Greater China
     Jun 25, 2009
Macau's election a sure bet
By Muhammad Cohen

MACAU - The contest for Macau's next chief executive was over before it began. Nomination endorsements were due to be submitted on Tuesday, but the Chief Executive Election Coordination Office could have locked the door and taken the day off.

Last Tuesday, former secretary of social affairs and culture Fernando Chui Sai-on submitted endorsements from 286 of the 300 election committee members that will choose Macau's next top local official. A candidate must have endorsements from 50 of the electors to get on the ballot, and electors can only give one endorsement, so Chui's overwhelming support means he'll be the only candidate in the running when the official vote takes place


next month. Chu will succeed chief executive Edmund Ho, whose term expires in December.

A member of Macau's Legislative Assembly during the final years of Portuguese rule, Chui served as a secretary in Ho's cabinet from the December 1999 handover until resigning last month as required by election rules to run for chief executive. As the government's top officer overseeing areas including healthcare and tourism, Chui's notable accomplishments include getting central Macau's historic areas designated a United Nations World Heritage site in 2005 and preventing the SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic from overwhelming Macau in 2003.

With American diplomas, including a doctorate in public health from Oklahoma State University, Chui was recognized as one of the best-educated members of the Macau government.

Consensus candidate?
That apparent consensus behind Chui could be good news for Macau, which faces a host of problems in spite of, and because of, breakneck growth that's seen the gambling haven's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) nearly triple since the 1999 handover from Portugal to China.

Chui also has the endorsement of gaming mogul Stanley Ho, who has reasserted himself as the top dog in the casino business that provides the overwhelming majority of Macau's tax revenue and economic activity. Additional good news is that Beijing was apparently neutral in the process, going out of its way not to express a preference. One election committee member even complained that he didn't know who to vote for because the central government hadn't told him.

Announcing his candidacy last month, Chui promised to fight corruption and run a clean, transparent administration. Submitting the forms to seal his selection on Tuesday, Chui promised to hold a series of town meetings. "We will listen to different residents' opinions through various channels and hope that a consensus based on social values and beliefs can be attained, so that Macau will maintain a prosperous and stable society in the future," he said.

That sounds great, but if Chui had been listening to a vocal portion of Macau's population, he wouldn't have run at all. An online poll of potential candidates in April placed Chui near the bottom, with just 13% of respondents favoring his candidacy. The poll's frontrunner, chief prosecutor Ho Chio-meng, had 60% backing.

Rather than a sign of consensus across society, Chui's near-unanimous endorsement by the small circle of voters signals the local elite's instinct to close ranks when it fears a possible challenge. That could spell trouble for Macau's 550,000 people, who have no say in choosing their leader, and also perhaps for the foreign companies and their investors and stockholders, who have pumped billions of dollars into Macau, now that hard times are hitting what's become the biggest gambling destination on Earth.

Fight the power
Chui's announcement that he would run for chief executive was greeted by an advertisement in a Hong Kong newspaper, paid for by a Macau online fundraising, claiming that Macau's people didn't want a leader chosen from one of its leading families. The ad voiced a widely held belief that a few families hold the reins of power in Macau and was a thin-veiled protest against Chui, a member of one of those alleged ruling clans.

Chui's older brother Chui Sai-cheong is a standing committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a Macau Legislative Assembly member, but the family's prominence spreads across generations.

His uncle Chui Tak-kei, who died in 2007, was a leading supporter of the Chinese Communist Party during Portuguese rule, a decorated legislator and civic leader, and founder of Yao Vo Development and Construction, a major player in Macau's building industry. At Chui's announcement, a woman posing as a journalist asked questions about his family business connections and a building site a family affiliated company acquired from the government at a bargain price in 2006. Chui didn't answer them, and didn't take questions on Tuesday.

Macau's breathtaking economic development, thanks to its liberalization of gaming from a monopoly to six operators, has delivered uneven benefits. The lion's share of profits has gone to casino owners and related businesses, while little has trickled down to Macau's majority. Nevertheless, that majority has suffered the consequences of development, including increased congestion, inflation and a quick-buck mentality that led many youngsters to forgo education for the lure of casino jobs.

The government has faced criticism for failing to anticipate the consequences of gaming liberalization or failing to spread the benefits more evenly, particularly in the area of social services. May Day protests in 2007 drew thousands of demonstrators, an unprecedented show of discontent among a usually placid populace, and turned violent when police attacked marchers with batons and fired warning shots, wounding a passerby. The continuing investigation into former public works secretary Ao Man Long's US$100 million corruption scandal has shown in graphic detail the level of collusion between big business and government in Macau.

Part of the problem
Chui's nine-and-a-half-year government tenure suggests he's been part of the problem, so it seems unlikely he'll be part of the solution. "I think that there will be almost no change in policy," one Macau resident who asked not to be identified told Asia Times Online. But he does anticipate a change in style. "At least Edmund Ho had a bit of style, was bright and could take questions. Chui Sai-on has none of this. A sitting, silent Buddha in public, and he will have even less legitimacy than Edmund Ho because of questions about corruption and shady land deals, that, of course, will never be made public," the resident said.

There are details in Chui's record as secretary that invite scrutiny. Macau's healthcare system, Chui's area of professional expertise, is a particular source of criticism for failing to expand benefits and facilities to treat the growing population and expend government resources to benefit the public.

The East Asia Games in 2005 were run under Chui's portfolio and put him in the midst of the Ao Man Long scandal. The games ran over budget by 70%. Ao allegedly received a MOP50 million (US$6.2 million) bribe in connection with the construction contract fort the games' centerpiece, the Macau Dome indoor arena. Overall, that project wound up costing MOP640 million, MOP285 million over budget.

Chui's cabinet tenure leaves him with a lot to answer for. But under Macau's election system and its clubby atmosphere of cronyism and collusion, he'll never have to, not even as he climbs to the top of the city's political ladder.

Macau Business special correspondent and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com), a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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