Singaporeans Head to the Polls as the City Grapples With the Virus
A People’s Action Party campaign banner with a photo of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is displayed in the Tanjong Pagar area in Singapore. (Photographer: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg)

Singaporeans Head to the Polls as the City Grapples With the Virus

Singapore headed to the polls Friday as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling party seeks to extend its 55-year rule with a fresh mandate to counter the city-state’s worst-ever recession amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Special precautions such as temperature screenings, the use of disposable gloves and safe distancing rules are being implemented at the polling booths, which close at 8:00 p.m. Vote counting will begin immediately afterward, with the final outcome likely to be clear either late Friday or early Saturday.

Singaporeans Head to the Polls as the City Grapples With the Virus

It could be Lee’s final election before he hands power to the so-called “fourth generation” of People’s Action Party (PAP) officials led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who have helped spearhead the government’s response to Covid-19. The next government will face the task of leading the country out of crisis after more than 45,000 people -- mostly migrant workers -- became infected, making Singapore one of the hardest hit places in Asia.

“This is a crisis environment,” said Bilveer Singh, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s department of political science. “Whether you buy it or not, I think the fear of Covid-19 is massive. Everyone is scared of jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s the overwhelming concern for most Singaporeans.”

While Singapore bans opinion polls during election campaigns, analysts and the opposition parties expect the PAP to easily win the most seats and form the next government. Still, any drop in support compared with the 2015 vote -- or even a more extreme scenario where the PAP fails to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time -- could potentially affect Lee’s succession plan or prompt the government to adopt more populist measures like it did in 2011 following its worst-ever result.

Prime Minister Lee has called on voters to give the PAP a “strong mandate” to guide Singapore through the crisis. Officials project Singapore’s gross domestic product will contract as much as 7% this year while employment fell in the first quarter by the most on record. That’s despite the government earmarking about S$93 billion in special budget support and dipping into its ample reserves to finance the spending.

Singaporeans Head to the Polls as the City Grapples With the Virus

This is an important election for a country in the midst of a leadership transition, said Eugene Tan, a political analyst and law professor at Singapore Management University, in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

“It has significant consequences with regard to how Singapore is going to deal with the post Covid-19 world in terms of preparing itself and dealing with the existing challenges,” Tan said, noting the question of whether the next generation of political leaders “are equal to the task” is a key one for voters.

The PAP has never won less than 93% of seats in a general election, and took nearly 70% of popular votes during the last poll in 2015. Reaching that level “may be ambitious” even though voters tend to support the ruling party during times of crisis and there’s “a real chance the PAP could win all 93 seats on offer,” according to Leonard Lim, country director for regional consultancy firm Vriens & Partners. A dip closer to the 60% share it won in 2011 “would prompt widespread introspection and a review of policies,” he said.

The opposition Workers’ Party, which garnered six seats in 2015, has also warned it may not win any in this election even though all constituencies are being contested for just the second time. To stay competitive, parties have largely divvied up seats in an effort to avoid three-cornered fights that may make things easier for the PAP.

Singaporeans Head to the Polls as the City Grapples With the Virus

Among those contesting is the newcomer Progress Singapore Party, which is led by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock and backed by the prime minister’s estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who became a member ahead of the election. PSP is fielding the most candidates of any opposition party with 24 in the running, while the Workers’ Party has put forward 21.

Campaigning has been vigorous despite one of the shortest election cycles in the world at just nine days. The PAP has sparred with the opposition on everything from housing issues to the standard of living and goods and services tax, to the use of non-elected members of parliament.

A law enacted last year intended to combat online disinformation has seen the government hand opposition parties and media outlets correction orders for what they describe as false statements pertaining to alleged population targets and the government’s role in the pandemic.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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