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Singapore election

Singapore PM heads for 'rocky economic shoals' with election bruises

Opposition gains seen as beginning of the end of PAP's 'absolute control'

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong checks his phone at a People's Action Party office during vote counting in the early hours of July 11.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singaporean voters elected a record number of opposition parliamentarians in Friday's polls, shifting the political landscape and putting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an uneasy position as he braces for the full economic impact of COVID-19.

The People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, maintained its supermajority, taking 83 of 93 possible seats. Yet, while the PAP still controls nearly 90% of the legislature, the rival Workers' Party could have been mistaken for the victors judging from the jubilant supporters who took to the streets.

"This was not a feel-good election," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters early on Saturday morning, acknowledging, "The results show a clear desire for a diversity of voices in parliament."

The Workers' Party grabbed 10 seats, up from six and an opposition best, despite coronavirus restrictions that affected campaigning and an election system that democracy advocates have long criticized for benefiting the PAP.

Singapore has a mix of single-seat constituencies and "group representation constituencies," in which parties field teams of candidates and the winner takes all seats. Opposition groups often struggle to find candidates and funds to compete in the GRCs, but the Workers' Party prevailed in two of these districts for the first time.

The overall share of the vote was also troubling for the PAP. The ruling party earned 61.2%, a big drop from 69.9% in the last election in 2015. Put another way, nearly 40% of voters preferred the opposition.

Indeed, although none of the other nine opposition parties won seats, their respectable showings offer reasons for optimism.

The newly formed Progress Singapore Party, led by PAP veteran Tan Cheng Bock, gained 40.8% of the vote in constituencies where it fielded candidates. Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan earned 45% in his single-member constituency, against the PAP candidate's 55%.

"The PAP's move to call an early election for a strong mandate has backfired dramatically to instead confirm and legitimize the appeal of the opposition's pitch for greater political accountability of the ruling party," Garry Rodan, honorary professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"This appeal exposes a substantial gap between the PAP's confidence in its view that all the answers to Singapore's policy problems are to be found from within the technocratic elite that dominates decision-making," Rodan said. The professor pointed to long-standing concerns about social and economic inequality, which have likely only been compounded by the current global economic uncertainty amid the pandemic.

"New commitments in social spending and workforce training by the PAP have not been enough to allay [those concerns] for many vulnerable Singaporeans," he said.

Lee's PAP will form a new government to lead the country for the next five years. But it may not be business as usual.

"We're unlikely to see a sharp turn toward open parliamentary debate, but the PAP could well take this message that a significant share of voters do want more voices heard to heart, especially as it confronts the very rocky economic shoals ahead," said Meredith Weiss, professor of political science at the State University of New York in Albany.

The coronavirus crisis is the most immediate challenge. Major local lender United Overseas Bank expects a 10.5% year-on-year contraction in second-quarter gross domestic product, due out on Tuesday. That would be worse than the worst period of the global financial crisis over a decade ago.

Even before the pandemic, the trade-reliant city-state was reeling from the escalating rivalry between China and the U.S. Last year's GDP growth rate fell to 0.7%, from 3.1% in 2018, due to disruptions in international trade.

That "poses particularly serious challenges to the PAP's economic model that is so hooked in to global markets," Rodan said.

The PAP faces internal challenges as well.

One of the big questions heading into the election was how the party's so-called "fourth generation" or "4G" politicians would fare. The leader of the pack is Heng Swee Keat, who is tipped to become the next prime minister after Lee retires, likely sometime during this term.

The polls may have raised more questions than they answered. Heng "parachuted" into the East Coast constituency as a nomination day surprise, and was tasked with helping the PAP team there fend off a strong challenge from the Workers' Party. He succeeded, but the party earned an underwhelming 53% of the vote.

Another 4G player and Lee cabinet member, Ng Chee Meng, lost a seat to the Workers' Party.

"While one cannot read sentiment toward any given candidate too neatly off a bloc-vote outcome, this result cannot be read as a strong vote of confidence in the 4G leaders," observed Weiss.

Prime Minister Lee touched on succession during the Saturday morning news conference: "Together with my older colleagues ... as well as Heng Swee Keat,[Trade and Industry Minister] Chan Chun Sing and the 4G ministers, I will see this crisis through," he said. "I'm determined to hand over Singapore intact and in good working order to the next team," reiterating a statement he made during an online rally last Monday.

Another Singapore watcher, associate professor Michael Barr at Australia's Flinders University, read between the lines. "He is declaring that he doesn't have confidence in the 4G leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Heng, to take over," Barr said.

All in all, Lee's PAP will now have to lead the city-state through an unprecedented economic crisis and arrange for a smooth succession, with louder-than-ever opposition voices in the background. This could spell trouble for some of the PAP's less popular policies, such as a proposed goods and services tax increase.

This election also revealed simmering tensions within Singaporean society, including over immigration. And it created new grounds for questioning the city-state's political system itself: A last-minute extension of voting hours on Friday sparked controversy, with the PSP's Tan complaining that it "compromised the integrity of the process."

As the dust settled on Saturday, there were signs that Lee might be coming to terms with a new reality.

The prime minister told reporters that he had called Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh to congratulate him. Lee said Singh has been formally designated as "the leader of the opposition" and will be provided with support and resources to carry out his duties.

Rodan suggested Singaporean politics may never be quite the same.

"I think the genie may finally be out of the bottle, so that the PAP will never return to the absolute control over politics it is accustomed to," he said.

"That would be no bad thing for Singapore, and even the PAP."

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