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A Larger Assembly

Wed, 17th Jul 2013
Legislature to get 4-seat boost after September ballot. (July 2013)

The Macao Legislative Assembly will see its number of seats increased from 29 to 33 after direct and indirect elections in September, giving the city’s residents four more representatives to voice their concerns and suggestions.

Together with the executive (government) and the judiciary, the legislature is one of the top three organs of Macao’s political system. The president of the Legislative Assembly (AL) ranks second among the special administrative region’s 13 principal officials, after the chief executive and before the president of the Court of Final Appeal (TUI).

Macao’s executive-led political system, including a unicameral legislature, took shape in the early 1960s when a Legislative Council was set up by the city’s then Portuguese administration. The legislature’s name was changed to Legislative Assembly in the early 1970s, a designation that continues to this day.

Portugal’s anti-colonial Carnation Revolution of 1974 resulted in the promulgation of the Macao Organic Statute in 1976 that resulted in the formation of the legislature’s “three-tier” structure that continues to date. Legislators are directly elected by popular vote and are indirectly elected by association representatives. Legislators are appointed by the head of government (i.e. by the governor until Macao’s return to the exercise of Chinese sovereignty at midnight on 19 December 1999, and by the chief executive of the Macao Special Administrative Region [SAR] ever since).

The Macao Organic Statute elevated the political status of the Legislative Assembly by turning it independent from the government and giving it a president elected by its members. Before 1976, the legislature was presided over by the governor. Moreover, the legislature shared its legislative powers with the governor, who had the power to enact decree-laws, until the 1999 change in administration.

The Macao Basic Law, which replaced the Macao Organic Statute on 20 December 1999, gave the Legislative Assembly the monopoly to legislate. However, due to the city’s tradition of an executive-led political system, the post-1999 government retains the exclusive right to propose bills on the legislative election system and the budget as well as any possible changes to Macao’s political structure and the government’s operations.

Back in 1972, the Legislative Assembly had 14 members, five of them directly elected by a small body of voters, eight indirectly elected by representatives of public entities, the business sector and cultural and “moral” interests, and one local Chinese person appointed by the governor. All the directly or indirectly elected lawmakers had to be Portuguese nationals and be fluent in Portuguese.

Macao’s legislature was dissolved in the wake of the 1974 Carnation Revolution.

After promulgation of the Macao Organic Statute in 1976, the number of legislators was increased to 17 – six directly elected by registered voters, six indirectly elected by representatives of business and community associations, and five appointed by the governor. The elections were based on continental Europe’s proportional representation system.

First elections

Macao’s first elections after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon were held in 1976. While Chinese citizens who had lived in Macao for more than five years were theoretically allowed to register as voters, the tiny electorate of 2,846 voters was practically restricted to local Portuguese and Macanese for whom there was no five-year minimum residency requirement.

A political row between Governor Rear-Admiral Vasco Almeida e Costa and Legislative Assembly President Carlos Paes d’Assumpçao in 1984 resulted in the legislature’s dissolution by Portuguese President Gen. Ramalho Eanes at the request of the governor.

Almeida e Costa also changed the election law to grant equal election rights to Portuguese and “other nationals” living in Macao, “namely Chinese”. The new law stated that any resident over the age of 18 – Portuguese, Chinese or foreigners – had the right to vote. This finally led to local Chinese residents’ active participation in the electoral process. The legislative elections of 1984 involved 28,970 voters.

Voting Reform

In the wake of the Macao Organic Statute’s revision in 1990, the Legislative Assembly’s number of members was raised to 23: eight directly elected and eight indirectly elected lawmakers, plus seven appointed by the governor.

For the first time, the city’s labour and professional sectors were included in the indirect election process, thereby reducing the political clout of the business sector.

The 1990 reform measures also included the substitution of the d’Hondt method for allocating seats in the legislature with a system that continues to be unique to Macao: instead of only using the divisors of one and two as the d’Hondt method does, the “Macao system” also uses the divisors of four, eight, etc. The allocation system makes it almost impossible for any group to win more than two directly elected seats, thereby promoting greater diversity in political representation in the legislature.

However, some civic groups have tried to beat the system by fielding their candidates in more than one list of candidates, which proved successful for the first time in the 2009 direct election which enabled one group to win three seats by running with two separate lists.

There are no political parties in Macao but there are civic associations that form ad hoc “lists” of candidates before each election.

With the change in administration in December 1999, all the legislature’s appointed members were replaced, but the directly and indirectly elected members were allowed to take the so-called “through-train”. They had been elected or appointed in 1996.

In line with the Macao Basic Law, the number of lawmakers was increased for the 2001 elections to 27 – 10 directly elected by popular vote, 10 indirectly elected by association representatives and seven appointed by the chief executive. The 2001 elections drew 83,644 voters.

Based on the Macao Basic Law, the legislature’s number of members was raised to 29 in 2005: 12 directly and 10 indirectly elected lawmakers and seven appointees.

More Seats Again

In November 2011, Chief Executive Chui Sai On announced that his government would gauge public opinion on possible changes to the method of electing the legislature, based on the Macao Basic Law’s Annex III allowing the election system to be changed after 2009.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing gave its green light to the Macao government’s initiative in December 2011. However, it stressed that any possible changes must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the legislature.

After a string of public consultation sessions on the matter, the Legislative Assembly in May 2012 passed the so-called “+2+2 mainstream option”, according to which two directly elected and two indirectly elected lawmakers will be added to the legislature in the next elections, which later were scheduled by the government to take place on 15 September 2013.

All permanent residents aged at least 18, irrespective of place of birth and nationality, have the right to vote. The minimum age to stand for election stands at 21.

Unlike in Hong Kong, Macao does not have different geographical constituencies for the direct legislative election by popular vote. The Macao Special Administrative Region – comprising the Macao peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane as well as the Cotai land-reclamation area – functions as a single constituency. Neither does Macao have Hong Kong-style functional constituencies. The indirect legislative election is based on hundreds of associations representing a wide range of business, labour, cultural, educational, social welfare, professional, religious, sport and other community interests. Registered associations’ designated representatives vote in the indirect elections.

Customarily, indirect election candidates have run uncontested after going through an “intra-association” selection process.

Apart from its powers to enact, amend, suspend or repeal laws, the Legislative Assembly has the exclusive right to decide on taxation matters and to examine and approve the government’s annual budgets. The legislature also holds public question-and-answer sessions involving government officials. Much of the lawmakers’ work takes place in committee meetings behind closed doors where detailed discussions take place about bills and current affairs before their final article-by-article vote in a plenary meeting that is open to the public.

In terms of the legislature’s composition, Article 68 of the Macao Basic Law and Paragraph III of Annex I of the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration on the Question of Macao state that the majority of the Legislative Assembly’s members shall be elected. Analysts have said this implicitly means that for at least 50 years from 1999 it would be unconstitutional to do away with the legislature’s segment of appointed members.

By Christian Ritter in Macao

(Issue N. 17, July 2013)