Democracy Takes Back Seat As Issue in Macao's Last Vote

Business groups eager to please China prevail over rights activists

The words "every little thing is gonna be all right," from Bob Marley's hit reggae song, blared from the speakers as the campaign trucks criss-crossed this tiny Portuguese enclave on the southern tip of China in the days before the general election Sept 22.

With only about 400,000 people crammed into seven square miles, Macao is a political campaigner's dream. This election to the territorial legislature, the last one held before Macao reverts to Chinese rule on Dec. 20, 1999, drew unusual interest and a record number of candidates.

A dozen groups formed lists of candidates to compete for eight legislature seats that were directly elected. The other 15 are filled by appointment or indirect election. But because of Macao's system of proportional representation, none of the groups won overwhelmingly.

In contrast with neighboring Hong Kong, where prodemocracy forces won the last election in 1995 and where liberal allies and independents hold half of the seats in the legislature, Macao has traditionally been dominated by "pro-Beijing" conservatives.

"I only hear that term in Hong Kong," responds legislator Tong Chi Kin. "We prefer to be called 'patriotic.' "

In this election, the leftist unions and neighborhood associations took a pasting from businessmen, mostly representing casino and real-estate interests.

Many parties are headed by businessmen who want to make sure they can exert influence during the coming transition. The only list of candidates comprised of democratic activists was headed by legislator Antonio Ng Kuok Cheong. "I want to create a tradition of speaking out now, so that it will carry over after 1999," he says. He retained his seat.

The coming transition to Chinese sovereignty figured only marginally in this campaign, which was dominated by worries about the economy. One reason: The newly elected legislature will serve past the transition date, unlike Hong Kong's elected body, which Beijing will dissolve.

Macao's leaders also pride themselves in quietly working out their differences with China behind closed doors. That's one reason why the change of sovereignty appears to be going smoother here than in Hong Kong and why confidence for continued autonomy in local affairs seems stronger. "The Portuguese don't see 1999 as the end of something but the beginning of a new relationship," explains Edmund Ho, a local banker and vice president of the legislature. "Lisbon thinks that if the Macao transition is handled properly, they'll have a special place in the China market."

After a 1974 coup in Portugal, Lisbon even tried to give the territory back, but Beijing said the time was inappropriate. Ever since, it has been described officially as Chinese territory under temporary Portuguese rule.

Unlike in Hong Kong, where British trading companies founded 150 years ago still exert wide influence, Portuguese business interests are relatively insignificant. Another reason people here seem sanguine about the future: Portugal gave everyone born here, about 30 percent of the population, a Portuguese passport. Britain only grudgingly allotted about 50,000 passports to Hong Kong's 6.3 million people.

Still, Macao's transition is not going completely smoothly. There are passport and nationality issues to be settled among the 70 percent of the population made up of recent immigrants from mainland China and other Asian countries who don't qualify for Portuguese citizenship.

Candidates of all political persuasions agree that "localization" of the civil service, whose upper levels are still 98 percent Portuguese, is moving too slowly. On this Hong Kong stands out. All of the top government posts, save governor, have been held by ethnic Chinese for several years. The Portuguese also never pushed the local population to learn their language, and the Chinese never had much incentive to do so. So translation of Portuguese statutes, especially court procedures, is moving agonizingly slowly.

Mr. Ho sums up the different approaches between Portugal and Britain this way: "The British say, 'If we disagree, we publicize it so that Hong Kong people know we're fighting for them.'

"Macao is too small. It is not in a position to absorb the damage from confrontation."

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