A leader with fiber, authoritarian but expeditious, to whom SARS-CoV2 gave the opportunity to demonstrate strong and decisive leadership. Ho Iat Seng comes to the end of his first year in office with unbeatable levels of popularity, underpinned by the Government’s success in combating the pandemic. The next year, warn analysts heard by PLATAFORMA, may, however, not be so lavish. The economic recovery in the post-Covid era is the biggest challenge facing Ho, in an equation that should be complicated by the legislative elections next September
The moment is quixotic. Ho Iat Seng, still a stranger in the art of ordering, with a mask halfway down his face, flanked by two of the most faithful servants, stopped the fat gear of the gigantic machine for making millions of Macau’s casinos. We are on February 4, 2020 and the tentacles of the mysterious disease that caged Wuhan and paralyzed China threaten to swallow the territory: within two weeks, the Health Service identifies a dozen infections by the new coronavirus and among those affected pontificate already residents of Macau.
With a single public hospital and just over eight hundred beds for hospitalization, the MSAR cannot afford to be lenient. The occasion is grave and governing is making choices, but even the gravity of the moment had not prepared Macao for what the fifth Chief Executive, in office for just over a month, announced that February morning. With the new secretary for Economy and Finance, Lei Wai Nong, on the one hand and the newly appointed secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, Elsie Ao Ieng U, on the other, Ho orders the hitherto unthinkable: the interruption of the activity of casinos for a period of two weeks and the suspension of basic services in the Civil Service.
The intervention echoes subtle echoes of the speeches made by Winston Churchill before the English Parliament during the Battle of England and the effect, the analysts and personalities heard by the PLATFORM unanimously consider, is largely similar.
“The pandemic would have been, in itself, a kind of curse, but it is a curse that turns out to be a good thing for Ho Iat Seng, as it gave him the chance to show the population a Chief Executive with enough fiber to put an end to this situation ”, considers Miguel de Senna Fernandes.
“Ho Iat Seng was up to the challenge in the sense that he had the courage, he had enough vision to, at first, determine what he determined. It is to be congratulated and I believe that this is unanimous, the population sees itself in this decision so decisive and so courageous on his part ”, adds the lawyer and associative leader.
The Government’s rapid and incisive response has triggered executive approval ratings, with Ho Iat Seng reaching unprecedented levels of popularity
A first study, conducted in mid-February by the Macau Research and Survey Association, indicates that 9 out of 10 residents are satisfied with the measures taken. The closure of the casinos, recalls Eilo Yu, is the first in a series of strategic decisions that helped the MSAR to remain on the sidelines of Covid-19.
“The pandemic has shifted people’s attention from the perspective of economic development and growth to the city’s survival. And the truth is that Ho Iat Seng managed to manage the crisis and convince the population that the leadership of the MSAR is well-placed ”, defends the professor of political science at the University of Macau.
“The turning point of the first year of office was, at the beginning of the year, when he announced the program for distributing masks to residents and the decision to close the border with China to stop the pandemic,” says the academic.
With the borders closed and the game rooms virtually without customers, the economy is in agony and the Government announces a vast package of financial measures that reassure the population. A comprehensive consumer incentive plan, designed to help keep restaurants and other small businesses afloat, earns Ho points. In early October, months after the first Covid-19 case was detected in the territory, a new survey shows that almost 95 percent of residents are satisfied with the Government’s performance in the fight against the pandemic and praise reaches even quarters and usually critical voices. “The pandemic limited the action and intervention of the Chief Executive, immediately revealing the competencies of the current Executive in times of crisis, when effective and efficient measures were required, namely at the economic and social level”, admits José Pereira Coutinho. “In general, right at the beginning of his term, the Chief Executive was well at controlling the impact of Covid-19, knowing that he could not fail in the face of the disrupted state of the current public health system”, he asserts, however, o also president of the Macau Civil Service Workers Association (ATFPM).
A strong, determined, authoritarian leader
The adoption of a policy of involvement and of surgical measures both to stop the pandemic and to prevent the total collapse of the economic fabric of the territory made Ho Iat Seng the most popular leader in the still brief history of the MSAR, but the state of grace in that the Chief Executive is still immersed, in Leung Kai Yin’s view, obscures the relentless and, to a large extent, authoritarian way in which the Government managed the response to Covid-19. For the public administration specialist, the pandemic provided Ho with the possibility of explaining power and authority, a character trait that should remain untouched throughout the term.
“Some of the measures taken were tremendously popular, such as the purchase of protective masks in Portugal, the closure of casinos or the decision to book hotels to comply with the quarantine. It adopted a policy of involvement to prevent the pandemic from spreading to Macau. The people of Macao were convinced that Ho is a strong and determined leader ”, explains Leung Kai Yin. “He is an authoritarian leader. He is someone who defends and encourages authoritarianism and uses this vision to govern Macau. He wants to build an image of a strong leader from an early age. From his point of view, the existence of many critical or contrary voices delays the implementation of the policies defined by the Government (…) In this perspective, the pandemic, despite being disastrous for Macau, was a good opportunity for Ho Iat Seng ”, he adds. the academic.
In early June, the detention of two young women, daughters of Deputy Au Kam San, who silently marked, in Largo de São Domingos, the 31st anniversary of the Massacre of Heavenly Peace pinches the honeymoon between the new Government and the population. Under the pretext of keeping Macau safe from the pandemic, the authorities forbid, for the first time in three decades, the usual June 4 vigil. Weeks later, the imposition by the Central Government of the National Security Act in the neighboring Hong Kong Special Administrative Region inevitably puts the issue on the agenda also in the territory. “Hong Kong’s chaos has triggered alarms and sensitivity from the Central Government, which has decided to enact the National Security Act in the RAEHK. Macau has recently shown signs that it is preparing to tighten the national security system, in order to prevent the possible infiltration of separatist elements, whether from Hong Kong or Taiwan, ”says Sonny Lo Shiu-hing. “The protests in Hong Kong did not affect the administration of Ho Iat Seng, but the Government nevertheless needs to improve National Security mechanisms in line with the wishes of the Central Government in Beijing,” warns the political scientist.
The political weight of the economy
For the activist Jason Chao, the obsession with the inviolability of the precepts of the National Security Law undermines the ability to form new generations with critical capacity and can, in the long run, prove to be toxic to the interests of the territory. “The lessons learned from Hong Kong have taught the Government and Macao officials to suppress any sign of dissent or the ability to think critically among young people, especially among students. Surveillance strategies will intensify. Macau has to present itself as a success story under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, warns the former leader of the Novo Macau Association. “However, creativity and critical thinking have great economic value in the process of diversifying Macao’s economy. I wonder how the obedience that is required of young people can go hand in hand with the need to foster new viable development sectors in Macau in the long term ”, asks the pro-democracy activist, currently based in Germany.
If it is true that the public health crisis motivated by Covid-19 set the tone for the governance of Ho Iat Seng, for many of the analysts interviewed by PLATFORM, the real tests of the Chief Executive’s governmental capacity should only manifest themselves in the post-pandemic. The relaunch of the economy, they maintain, will be in more than one aspect, the greatest challenge that Ho Iat Seng will face. “It is certain that if the economy remains on a downward trend over the next few years, the Government of Macau will have to face great pressure and adopt more austere measures that are likely to trigger the discontent of the population and, as such, steal legitimacy to the Macao SAR Government, ”says Eilo Yu.
The days of grace enjoyed by the Chief Executive, as predicted by Leung Kai Yin, have their days numbered. With unemployment on the rise and dissatisfaction on the rise, the public administration expert anticipates further difficulties for Ho Iat Seng, whether or not it was 2021 election year. “The ballot for the Legislative Assembly will be organized next year. All associations will require the Government to do more for people. Even pro-government associations will approach the Executive more critically. In my view, legislative elections will be a crucial factor for the Government led by Ho Iat Seng. It will face a series of challenges on the part of different organizations ”, previews Leung. “What I think is that the honeymoon between Ho Iat Seng and the population of Macau has come to an end”, concludes the academic.