No surprises as gambling hub Macau gets new leader

  • World
  • Sunday, 26 Jul 2009

MACAU (Reuters) - A low-key official was endorsed on Sunday by a small, pro-Beijing electoral college as Macau's next chief executive, with no changes expected in gaming policy in the Chinese-ruled gambling hub.

Fernando Chui was the sole candidate in the race for the former Portuguese colony's chief, but he still required the formal backing of a 300-member election committee.

The territory's half million people have no direct say on who their next leader will be.

Chui will replace current chief executive Edmund Ho who has served a maximum two five-year terms since Macau's return to Chinese rule in 1999.

"We will follow previous policies to maintain healthy development of Macau's gambling sector and hope that it will maintain its advantage in Asia," Chui told reporters after winning the backing of 282 election committee members as expected.

Revenues from Macau's $15 billion gaming industry overtook those of Las Vegas in 2006 thanks to the liberalisation of the casino sector.

But Chui said he would pursue "appropriate diversification", alluding to the need to lessen Macau's overwhelming reliance on gaming.

At the UNESCO-listed ruins of St. Paul's church, a small group of protesters held up banners slamming Chui's "small-circle" election while demanding greater democracy.

Neighbouring Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to China in 1997, held a contested chief executive election in 2007 and is inching towards universal suffrage in 2017. Macau has no such timetable.

"Macau needs universal suffrage," said pro-democracy legislator Antonio Ng who boycotted the vote. "And we want to have this by 2019."

With Macau clawing its way out of a deep slump in the gaming sector, exacerbated by Beijing-imposed visa curbs on mainland Chinese visitors, the new leader will have a key role in charting Macau's future gaming market growth, while trying to cast off the previous administration's corruption-tainted image.

Macau gaming tycoon Stanley Ho welcomed Chui but called on him to regulate junket operators who now dominate the lucrative and murky VIP gaming sector, which has hurt the profitability of existing casino operators which include the Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts.

"He (Chui) will ensure that there's no fighting" among the casino oprators, Ho said. "We should work together for the good of Macau."

Macau's gaming revenues were down seven percent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, but analysts expect a stronger performance in the second half.

Chui conceded Macau would face greater competition from upcoming mega casinos in Singapore which could cannibalise his Macau's business.

Little known outside of Macau, the bespectacled and U.S.-educated Chui served as Macau's culture secretary for 10 years. He hails from a prominent Macau family whose commercial interests span construction, finance, tourism and health which has led to some criticism. He will take up his post in December.

"Because of his family background, people will ask whether there's a conflict of interest," said said Eilo Yu, an analyst at the University of Macau. "Also his past performance has not been exceptional so people might think he's not good for the job."

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