The countdown to Singapore’s general election has officially begun.
It’s known that the next general election must be held before 21 April 2021, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has noted that it could take place earlier.
Moreover, the People’s Action Party (PAP) — which has governed Singapore for 61 uninterrupted years — rarely waits until the end of a five-year term to get a new mandate.
On March 13, the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) released the electoral boundaries report, which signals that elections are imminent.
In previous elections, the timing between the release of the report and the dissolution of Parliament has ranged from one day to one month and 26 days. The election must be held within three months from the date the Parliament is dissolved.
Historically, the government has often scheduled elections soon after the passage of the year’s Budget, taking the opportunity to introduce new policies popular with voters.
Considering the time needed for the measures from the Budget to sink in and benefit voters, April or May is a very likely election window. Furthermore, both the 2006 and 2011 elections were called soon after the Budget, in May.
Will Elections Take Place Amid COVID-19?
On March 14, PM Lee said in a Facebook post that the date of the next general election will “depend on the (COVID-19) situation, and the outlook.”
He predicted that the pandemic will likely last for a year or more, and that its economic impact is expected to be “more serious than the global financial crisis and longer-lasting too, even beyond the end of the pandemic.”
We have two choices. Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances — but we have no certainty of that.
Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand.
If we have to hold elections before COVID-19 is over, we will take all the precautions necessary, so that parties can campaign effectively and people can vote safely.– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who leads the Progress Singapore Party, suggests the formation of a “caretaker government” beyond the two options.
“If the pandemic is still with us by then (April 2021), the president can exercise her soft power and form a caretaker government consisting of some of the current MPs,” he explained.
Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean refutes that a caretaker government lacks the mandate of voters, thus it’s not able to make major decisions on behalf of Singaporeans.
He added that it is “unconstitutional” to delay elections in the absence of a state of emergency.
Despite the many crises Singapore has weathered, it has never extended its electoral deadline nor declared a state of emergency since independence. “It is not a precedent we should set lightly,” stressed Mr Teo in Parliament last Wednesday (March 25).
Separately, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has hinted that Singapore would go to the polls sooner rather than later.
“Whatever the timing of the election, because it has to be held by April 2021, it is very likely that it will have to be held when COVID-19 is still circulating in our midst — that’s the reality,” he said in a CNBC interview.
Now Is The Best Time For PAP To Hold An Election
So if we were to call for an early election, would it be a good idea to hold it amid the pandemic?
A few non-partisan voices have emerged to say the government should ride out the worst of the crisis before holding an election.
They reasoned that an election during an outbreak goes against all the precautionary measures rolled out to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The SDP even said that if the PAP were to call for elections, it would be an “irresponsible act.”
It added that all state resources should be focused on dealing with the spread of the coronavirus and that PAP should not “capitalise on the crisis” and jeopardise public health.
Singapore can currently hold the fort because we are paying undivided attention on it. If an election comes into the picture, there is a risk of distraction and may cause a deterioration of present situation.
Moreover, holding the GE during this period puts the whole nation at risk, which contradicts our efforts so far to contain it.
For the PAP however, now is an opportune time to call for an election. They can exploit the goodwill from their deft handling of the COVID-19 crisis as an election advantage — even the World Health Organization (WHO) has cited Singapore as a “gold standard”.
“When people have a siege mentality, they will go for safety and a proven government,” noted former PAP MP Inderjit Singh.
Moreover, in this near-recession period, the PAP will be strongly favoured as no one wants to change the government in the middle of a crisis. The prospect of a shaky transition period will only scare away any potential detractors.
But if you think ahead, the ruling party could face a situation where the polls have to be held when the outbreak is more severe than it is now if it waits too long.
Since the government has assessed that things will likely get worse, it would be best if they quickly hold the election and put a strong government in place to tackle the fallout from COVID-19.
Why A COVID-19 Election Will Be Disadvantageous For The Opposition
With social distancing and a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, there can be no political rallies.
Opposition parties like the WP traditionally relied on door-to-door visits to connect with voters. In the 2011 election, its party leaders even said that home visits had made all the difference.
With the elimination of walkabouts or house visits, opposition parties will face major hurdles in public outreach. The reduced opportunities for interaction puts the the opposition at a great disadvantage because they’re the ones who will need to invigorate the electorate and get them out to vote.
But it’s not just on-the-ground conditions which will make the COVID-19 GE a walkover. With virus clusters popping up everyday, most of the campaigning will likely take place online, where the playing field is even more lopsided.
That said, a COVID-19 election will probably see the live-streaming of speeches and rallies. The downside of it is that physically standing in a crowd and listening to powerful speeches during a rally is vastly different from watching a Facebook video.
All of this suits our ruling party just fine because they are a known entity. As many have pointed out, PAP rallies are sparsely attended anyway.
While attendance at such rallies is never a barometer of support at the ballot box, they are vital for the opposition to hammer home their pledge to be a check on the ruling party once they make it to parliament.
Moreover, with direct political advertising severely limited on Facebook, opposition parties will be at the mercy of major media outlets, all of whom are strongly pro-PAP.
During Polling Day itself, the authorities have to implement measures such as temperature screening, social distancing in queues, provision of hand sanitisers for voters and express lanes for seniors.
They also would need to think about how Singaporeans who are serving stay-home notices or under home quarantine supposed to vote. Is it time for us to advance towards online voting?
It is also unclear how the election department plans to conduct roadshows to bring voters up to speed with newly-introduced aspects of the voting process, including an e-registration mechanism and the use of a self-inking pen.
While a COVID-19 election is not ideal, the advent of social media and the Internet definitely makes it possible for an election to carry on.
Like what PM Lee said, “these are, to a large extent, solvable problems.”
However, it’s also clear that nobody will be able to “campaign effectively” as PM Lee had promised, especially for the opposition parties who need to make themselves heard.
As COVID-19 cases increase and more stringent regulations are put into place, GE 2020 will most likely be an election only in name with no rallies, minimal interaction, and as voter concerns are focused elsewhere.
Featured Image Credit: Reuters