HONG KONG (Reuters) - Macau chief executive Fernando Chui is widely expected to be "re-elected" on Sunday after the pro-China government stifled an unofficial referendum on democracy, taking a much harder line on the gambling hub than leaders have in neighbouring Hong Kong.
The election in the tiny but wealthy former Portuguese-run enclave, by a select panel of 400 largely pro-China loyalists with Chui the only candidate, echoes the struggle in Hong Kong, where activists have been pushing for universal suffrage since China reclaimed the British colony in 1997.
Both territories are now "special administrative regions" of China, enjoying wide-ranging freedoms unavailable on the mainland, but presenting Communist Party leaders in Beijing with a headache as calls for democracy grow. China is terrified those calls will spread to mainland cities, threatening the party's grip on power.
Eric Sautede, a former professor of politics at Macau's University of Saint Joseph who was sacked for expressing his political views, said Beijing could crack down more easily in Macau than in Hong Kong because of the "limited grassroots push".
"None of the people in charge in Macau ever praised democratic values," he said. "They only praise consultation, scientific governance and harmony."
The election in Macau coincides with a meeting of China's parliament which is expected to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong's leader to a handful of candidates, a move likely to escalate plans by pro-democracy activists to blockade the city's Central business district.
But so far, it is the Macau activists who have fared the worst, with five detained for staging the unofficial referendum on democracy, nearly two months after activists angered Beijing by conducting a similar poll in Hong Kong.
Macau, which returned to China in 1999, does not have a history of activism, unlike Hong Kong, where the Legislative Council is polarised between pro-Beijing conservatives and those calling for a free vote.
Larry So, a Macau-based commentator, said the crackdown on the civil referendum was an overreaction.
"The term civil referendum is a very sensitive touchy political term. If there wasn’t an issue in Hong Kong, they (authorities) wouldn’t react in this way," he said.
"The central government (Beijing) has been coming down very hard. They would prefer that the term civil referendum did not exist. This is why they have behaved in such a strong way."
Macau authorities moved quickly to disrupt the poll, shutting polling booths and arresting the five people for breaching privacy laws.
"The local government and the Chinese government are very sensitive about the civil referendum. Beijing's concern is at the national level, that it fears if Macau now has a civil referendum, other mainland Chinese cities may learn from the experience," said Jason Chao, one of the poll's organisers.
Macau had been largely apolitical, but as per capita income in the territory of 600,000 soared above Switzerland, residents became vocal. In May, more than 20,000 took to the streets to protest against inequalities and poor public services.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates power, there have been growing signs of Beijing's encroaching authority in Macau, home to 35 casinos and the only place in China where casino gambling is legal. Operators include U.S. companies Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM China.
A new People's Liberation Army garrison has been stationed opposite the casino strip, Beijing's "liaison office" in Macau has expanded and in the past two months two university professors, including Sautede, have been sacked for being politically outspoken.
"It was not because of my performance," said Bill Chou, sacked from the University of Macau. "It was because of my political belief. I was disciplined because I was not politically neutral."
Macau's residents have traditionally had a strong affinity with the mainland, with around half of its population born there and maintaining strong business and family ties.
But younger residents have become aware of the discrepancy between the wealth and the dire public services, including its overrun single public hospital.
"This is really the infancy of people realizing their frustrations, their disenchantment and their frustration at the system," Sautede said.
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Nick Macfie)