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Singapore election

Singapore election comes with extra drama: 7 things to know

Pandemic, economic woes and Lee family rift raise the stakes on July 10

SINGAPORE -- The dissolution of Singapore's parliament on Tuesday means the city-state is headed for a general election on July 10.

Analysts expect the ruling People's Action Party to cruise to victory, taking most of the 93 seats up for grabs, in what is likely to be Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's final election as leader.

But while Singaporean elections are typically low on drama -- no party has managed to wrest control from the PAP since independence in 1965 -- this one is considered particularly significant. The coronavirus, the ensuing economic slump, the transition to a new generation of leaders and a simmering Lee family feud have all raised the stakes.

The prime minister's estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, on Wednesday revealed his membership in the new opposition Progress Singapore Party, which he had been backing behind the scenes.

Here's what you need to know.

Why is Singapore holding an election now, while COVID-19 remains a threat?

Singapore had until April 2021 to hold the next election, but Prime Minister Lee pulled the trigger just as the city-state is emerging from roughly two months of "circuit breaker" coronavirus restrictions.

The government lifted more curbs on businesses last Friday, allowing most to reopen, including retail stores and dine-in restaurants. Daily confirmed infections, which exceeded 1,000 in late-April due to clusters in migrant worker dormitories, have fallen to around 100 to 200 lately, with only a few cases among Singaporeans.

"We are now in a stable position," Lee explained Tuesday when he announced the polls. "An election now ... will clear the decks and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate. It can then focus on this national agenda and the difficult decisions it will have to make."

Lee's government has already injected over 90 billion Singapore dollars ($64 billion) worth of stimulus, or nearly 20% of gross domestic product, to cushion the coronavirus impact. The ruling party apparently hopes voters will reward it for protecting wages and job security.

A late election, on the other hand, could bring uncertainties such as a "second wave" of infections -- creating more room for the opposition to criticize the PAP.

Citing recent votes in other countries, like South Korea, Lee insisted the polls can be conducted safely with precautions in place.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrates with supporters after the 2015 general election.   © Reuters

What will the precautions look like?

Despite the easing of COVID-19 safeguards, large gatherings are still banned. This will preclude the big opposition rallies held in the past, when thousands of supporters converged on grassy fields, potentially putting these parties at a disadvantage.

To prepare for voting amid the pandemic, the government passed legislation allowing citizens who are quarantined in hospitals or hotels to vote outside their assigned districts -- and if necessary without leaving their quarters. Potential candidates, who by law must file their nomination papers in person, are authorized to have a representative file on their behalf.

Other measures include increasing the number of polling stations to 1,100 from 880, to reduce density, along with a plan to encourage citizens to vote during allotted two-hour periods. Voters will be asked to put on disposable gloves when casting ballots.

Voting is compulsory for Singaporeans aged 21 or older, and 2.65 million people are eligible.

Why is this election different?

If the PAP indeed wins again, 68-year-old Prime Minister Lee is expected to hand the reins of power to a successor during the government's next term. The heir apparent is Heng Swee Keat, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, who has filled in for Lee as acting prime minister in the past.

The coming election is thus seen as a test for Heng, 59, and a cast of younger PAP politicians known as the "4G" or fourth generation. The first generation, of course, was led by Lee Kuan Yew -- Lee Hsien Loong's father and the city-state's first prime minister -- who died in 2015.

The PAP's performance will be seen as an indication of the public's confidence in Heng and the rest of the 4G team as the city-state faces serious economic headaches.

Gross domestic product is projected to shrink by 4% to 7% this year, the worst in history due to the coronavirus. But Singapore's open economy is threatened by other factors too, including trade tensions, spreading protectionism and rising health care costs due to an aging population.

"The challenge is for Mr. Heng's 4G team to secure a strong mandate from Singaporeans and to build a strong and cohesive team of lieutenants, which his predecessors had," said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

Who are the politicians to watch?

Political observers will be closely eyeing how Finance Minister Heng performs in his constituency, as a gauge of his support with the general public. Prime Minister Lee has enjoyed strong backing in his own ward.

In the opposition camp, the spotlight will be on veteran politician Tan Cheng Bock and his new Progress Singapore Party.

Progress Singapore Party members, led by Tan Cheng Bock in the center, pose after announcing the party's launch in July 2019.   © Reuters

Tan was a former PAP politician who retired but returned to the fray with a presidential run in 2011. In the city-state, the presidency is considered a non-partisan, unifying role. He narrowly lost to Tony Tan, another PAP veteran.

This time, Tan Cheng Bock has the backing of Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister's estranged younger brother, who has yet to make peace with his sibling over the fate of their deceased father's home.

Their dispute ignited a public debate over whether the residence should be torn down or preserved for its historical value. The younger Lee's emergence on Wednesday as an actual party member -- he was seen at breakfast wearing a Progress Singapore shirt -- sparked a flurry of speculation that he might stand as a candidate.

How much of a challenge will the PAP face?

The younger Lee's presence adds to a quickly expanding field of opposition voices.

Singapore could see a record 12 opposition parties vying for seats. This carries on a trend that took hold in the 2011 election, when the PAP encountered more resistance than it was used to.

That year, the ruling party garnered its lowest share of the vote on record -- 60.1% -- as public frustration with high housing costs and an immigration influx boiled over. The opposition Workers' Party made a breakthrough, securing six seats.

The PAP recovered in the 2015 election, taking 69.9% of the vote.

This year, Progress Singapore is not the only nascent opposition player. Some of the party's members splintered off into a new camp -- named the Red Dot Unit -- which has been given the nod to register as a party.

How do the parties differ on policy?

The PAP has traditionally avoided aligning itself with "liberal" or "conservative" ideology. Experts typically describe the ruling party's approach as one anchored in pragmatism -- choosing policies based on perceived practicality and effectiveness.

The Workers' Party, currently the only opposition party with representation in the PAP-dominated parliament, has in the past recommended left-leaning policies like a national minimum wage to help less-fortunate Singaporeans escape poverty.

The PAP has rejected such calls, preferring a 'progressive wage model,' whereby pay in specific sectors rises as workers acquire skills through training, allowing them to increase their productivity.

Progress Singapore, meanwhile, has kept its cards close to its chest. It previously opposed a plan to raise the Goods and Services Tax, and argued that infrastructure projects in the pipeline -- like the expansion of the city-state's airport -- should not be funded by tax increases. But it has yet to release its full election manifesto.

Will the outcome affect Singapore's foreign policy?

If the PAP continues its reign, a sea change appears unlikely.

The city-state seldom makes drastic foreign policy changes. The government's priority is to be a reliable, stable partner and financial center. Finance Minister Heng would likely maintain this approach.

Politics watchers believe Singapore will continue to tread a fine line between major powers like the U.S. and China, not wanting to choose sides.

"We'll have to adopt a more balanced position, and nothing will fundamentally change," said Alan Chong, associate professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

In fact, Chong said, this merely amounts to a "retreat" back to Lee Kuan Yew's "default position in terms of equidistant foreign policy."

Additional reporting by Kentaro Iwamoto.

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