Singapore joined the list of the countries that have conducted an election during the coronavirus pandemic. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been power since independence, was declared the winner of this year’s Singapore election. PAP secured 83 out of 93 seats in parliament and a popular vote of 61 per cent.
For the party of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, however, the result was weaker than expected. PAP faced a decline in the number of parliamentary seats and total vote from the 2015 polls when it won 93 per cent of the seats and nearly 70 per cent of the total vote. Some of the top high-rated candidates from the PAP lost their contest.
The opposition Workers’ Party, on the other hand, increased its number of parliamentary seats from 6 to 10 and an increase in the popular vote to more than 10 per cent, the highest number ever won by the opposition. Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh is cautiously optimistic: “Today’s results are positive, but we have to hit the ground running,” he said. “We should not get over our head with the results. There is much work to do.”
Analysts rate the decline in votes for the PAP as a defeat. Chong Ja Ian, political scientist with the National University of Singapore, attributes the loss to “less satisfaction with how the PAP has been handling policies from the economy to the coronavirus pandemic”.
Voting in Coronavirus times
The call for an election during the pandemic attracted high criticism from some opposition leader, but officials assured the public that there would be adequate precautions. Campaigns were, however, affected as there was a ban on mass rallies and any form of physical campaigns. The efforts to win over voters in the nine-days campaigning period were directed to online platforms.
Surprisingly, this year’s Singapore election had a voter turnout of 96 per cent, which is the highest since the country’s independence. There were a few changes due to coronavirus like wearing masks and gloves, social distancing measures and an extension of the voting time by two hours to accommodate the long queue.
Singapore election: “Voters want diversity of voices”
Prime Minister Lee in an early Saturday morning press conference said that this year’s Singapore election was not a strong mandate as he hoped for, but it was a good mandate. He further stated that the results reflected the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in the current crisis.
Lee, who has maintained his premiership since 2004, easily bagged his seat, but his deputy and his most likely successor, Heng Swee Keat, had a total vote of 53 per cent – which was lower than the overall nationwide results.
Lee also acknowledged that Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, want more “diversity in voices” in the country’s parliament. He also added that the Worker’s Party chief Singh would be officially named as “Leader of the Opposition”. That position had not been offered to Singh or his predecessor Low Thia Khiang since 2011. Low was previously offered the title of “Unofficial Leader of the Opposition”, which the opposition rejected.
If this and the higher numbers of opposition seats will lead to a sharp turn toward open parliamentary debate, remains to be seen. However, Premier Lee acknowledged: “The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis, the loss of income, the anxiety about jobs, the disruption caused by the safe distancing restrictions.”
Challenges ahead after elections
The People’s Action Party promised voters stability and competence, but there are challenges ahead.
Certainly, the coronavirus crisis is the most immediate challenge. The deglobalisation caused by the pandemic is a threat to Singapore economy that majorly depends on international trade.
Singapore’s GDP growth rate already fell to 0.7% last year, from 3.1% in 2018, due to disruptions in international trade caused by the Sino-American trade conflict. For Q2 this year, latest forecasts expect the GDP to contract 10.5% year-on-year.
The government is already reacting: In May, the government unveiled its fourth set of stimulus measures to conquer the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The $23.25bn USD stimulus package had the specific focus on saving jobs. That sums up Singapore’s total cash injections to nearly $70.5bn USD.