HONG KONG (AFP) - Macau re-elected its incumbent leader in an unchallenged contest on Sunday as the gambling hub faces growing calls for democracy amid anger over deteriorating living conditions and government accountability.
The booming city's sole chief executive candidate Fernando Chui was voted in for a second term by 95 per cent of a 400-strong pro-Beijing electoral committee, in a foregone contest that democracy advocates have called "ridiculous".
"Chui was elected by 380 votes," a Macau government spokesman told AFP. There were 13 blank and three invalid ballots among the 396 committee members who voted.
More than a dozen people marched and bowed in protest outside the venue where the vote was taking place. "Every time we bow down we would like it to be a reminder that Macau people have no choice (in this election)," protester Sulu Sou told reporters.
The former Portuguese colony has grown wealthy off the proceeds of its gambling industry, which rakes in enormous sums of cash, predominantly from wealthy Chinese mainlanders.
Compared with its more vocal neighbour Hong Kong, Macau has traditionally been politically apathetic as long as business continues to boom.
But there have been signs of political discontent as concerns grow over the city's future and how it will be decided.
In the past week more than 8,500 people have cast votes in an unofficial referendum calling for greater rights which activists says is part of their nascent attempt to establish a democratic system.
"When there are only 400 people that are voting and when these 400 people have no choice, this is ridiculous," Mr Sou, a member of the pro-democracy group Macau Conscience, told AFP.
"Macau residents are starting to open up to the idea of democracy," he said, adding that more people have been taking to the streets in the past few years.
On Saturday, employees of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho's SJM took part in industrial action calling for better wages and working conditions, causing some disruptions at gaming tables, organisers told AFP.
In May around 20,000 people marched against a Bill allowing government ministers generous retirement packages in a display of popular protest virtually unseen before in Macau.
"Wage increases have plateaued, while living costs and property costs have continued to go up," Mr Sou said.
Macau returned to Chinese rule in 1999 and has a separate legal system from the mainland.
"Macau's political system is paternalistic and democratisation lacks legal basis," analyst Sonny Lo, who specialises in Macau politics, told AFP.
"Most of the Macau people are pretty complacent and satisfied with the current economic situation," Mr Lo said, describing the city's middle class.
But Mr Lo said the territory's younger democracy campaigners were much more likely to clash with the authorities than their parents, who were largely satisfied with the status quo.
Macau's gaming sector has seen a boom in recent years due to an influx of well-heeled Chinese gamblers, and overtook Las Vegas as the world's gaming capital in terms of revenue after the sector was opened up to foreign competition in 2002.
When he came into power in 2009, Chui said he would diversify the economy and rid the territory of its reputation for corruption.
"I don't think Chui will take any bold steps in order to revamp the political system," Mr Lo said.
"The Macau democrats will be bound to be dissatisfied."
Mr Sou said he had little hope of swift change.
"I hope that within the next five years, more people will wake up and more people will try to push for democracy, but I don't have high hopes for Chui," Mr Sou said.
Hong Kong also held an informal poll on democratic reform in June that saw almost 800,000 people vote over 10 days on how the city's next leader should be chosen in 2017.
A pro-democracy group, Occupy Central, has pledged to mobilise thousands of protesters to block the financial district if the authorities refuse to allow the public to choose candidates.
The top committee of China's rubber-stamp legislature is expected to announce its decision on Sunday afternoon on what form the political changes in the city will take.