Singapore governing party set to extend power in elections

SINGAPORE (AP) — Singaporeans vote today in Southeast Asia’s first election since the coronavirus pandemic began, with the health crisis and a grim economy expected to bolster Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s party and extend its unbroken rule.

While victory seems secure for Lee’s People Action Party (PAP), the entry of his estranged younger brother into the political fray has given the opposition some hope of expanding its toehold in Parliament.

His brother, Lee Hsien Yang, joined an opposition party last month but decided not to contest the election, saying the country “doesn’t need another Lee.” Their father, Lee Kuan Yew, was Singapore’s first prime minister and during 31 years in office turned the resource-poor nation into an affluent city-state. Lee Hsien Loong is the country’s third prime minister and has led the government since 2004.

Lee Hsien Yang accused the PAP of turning into an elitist party and called for a more transparent and accountable government, still, a strong showing by the opposition will be a tall task with the country facing its worst recession this year.

“It’s hard slog for the opposition in any time, more so in a crisis,” said honorary research associate at Malaysia’s University of Nottingham Bridget Welsh.

Lee Hsien Yang wears a face mask while talking to people at the Chong Pang area during a campaign walkabout for the opposition Progress Singapore Party in Singapore. PHOTO: AP

Lee Hsien Yang has “helped set the tone for the opposition, calling into question some aspects of PAP governance, especially his brother’s leadership … but the flight to safety argument on the economy favours the PAP,” she said.

Singapore’s elections follow polls in Mongolia last month and in South Korea in April, when governing parties in both countries scored resounding victories.

Singapore’s elections come just weeks after the country emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling one of Asia’s worst virus outbreaks. The nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, most of them foreign workers living in crowded dormitories that were overlooked in the early phase of its crisis management.

While infections have mostly declined, new daily cases still top 100. But the government said the elections can be held safely with more polling stations and staggered times allocated for the 2.65 million eligible voters to cast their ballots.

Physical rallies were banned during the nine-day campaign that ended on Wednesday, in which both sides took their battle to social media. Candidates sparred over how to keep jobs and propel the economy forward in televised debates and delivered strong online video speeches. Some wore shirts with QR codes so residents could scan them and get instant access to their social media pages.

The two Lees, who have been embroiled in a public spat since 2017 over the fate of their family home, have hit the campaign trail in hawker markets and public housing estates, but with masks and without the usual handshakes with voters.

With the economy forecast to shrink this year by between four and seven per cent, the PAP has touted its strong track record in propelling the nation into one of the world’s richest. Prime Minister Lee said the polls aren’t about his family feud but the nation’s future, and appealed to voters for a strong mandate to navigate Singapore through the crisis and beyond. His government has unveiled several economic assistance packages totalling nearly SGD100 billion.

The stakes are higher this time for Lee, who has said he plans to retire in two years at age 70. His deputy and finance minister, Heng Swee Keat, is his designated successor and some see the election as a vote of confidence in the new leadership.

“Ultimately, it is how voters view the PAP government’s handling of COVID-19 in all aspects that could play a big role in whether the ruling party will secure a strong mandate,” said law professor at Singapore Management University Eugene Tan. “If the PAP is able to secure about 65 per cent of the popular vote and not lose additional seats, then I think they can claim to have a very good general election.”

The popular vote for the PAP has never slipped below 60 per cent. In 2015, the PAP won 69.9 per cent of the total vote and 93 per cent of parliamentary seats.