Singapore ruling party’s support slips in pandemic poll

SINGAPORE (AFP) – Singapore’s long-ruling party retained power yesterday but its support fell sharply, while the opposition made gains, in a general election held under the shadow of a coronavirus outbreak.

Voters put on masks and gloves and had to observe social distancing rules during a poll held as the city-state emerges from a lengthy lockdown.

The affluent financial hub has seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown the government pushed ahead with the poll.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore for six decades, was always assured of victory, and won 83 of 93 parliamentary seats up for grabs, and 61.2 per cent of the popular vote.

But that was pointedly down on the nearly 70 per cent of the vote it won at the country’s last election in 2015, while the opposition Workers’ Party picked up 10 seats – its best ever showing at an election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, visibly disappointed, conceded the “percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped”.

“The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis – the loss of income, the anxiety about jobs,” he told a press conference. “This was not a feel-good election.”

The trading hub has been hit hard by the pandemic and is forecast to be heading for its worst recession since independence in 1965.

The PAP’s share of the popular vote was close to its lowest ever level of 60.1 per cent, in the 2011 election.

But for the Workers’ Party, which previously held just six seats, the results felt like a victory.

Raucous celebrations erupted in one of the party’s strongholds, with people cheering and waving flags.

“I’m very grateful to all the voters, I’m also very humbled,” said Party Leader Pritam Singh. “I think there’s a lot of work to do.”

Commentators said the ruling party’s support may also have been dented by a desire for change among the young. “Younger voters wanted their voices to be heard in a more significant way,” Political Analyst from Singapore Management University Eugene Tan told broadcaster CNA.

“One-party governance may not go down so well with them in this age and time.”