SINGAPORE -- The ruling People's Action Party will form Singapore's next government with a supermajority, but the opposition made unprecedented gains in the city-state's general election.
The PAP won 83 of 93 available seats, with the final results coming in just before 4:00 a.m. local time on Saturday morning. This will extend the party's uninterrupted reign well into its sixth decade, but the victory may be slightly bittersweet. The ruling party won about 61.2% of the vote, its second-worst result on record and well below its 69.9% share in the 2015 election.
"We have a clear mandate, but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at an early Saturday morning press conference following the election. Younger voters especially "want to see more of an opposition presence in the parliament."
Major challenges await, from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its dire economic consequences to a much-anticipated leadership transition.
"The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis" Lee said. "This was not a feel good election."
Most pundits expected a strong PAP majority. After a controversial two-hour extension of voting time and several more hours of counting, the predictions proved accurate but the opposition Workers' Party held 10 seats. That is the most for an opposition party since independence.
"The opposition provided a real choice this time, and voters also made that leap of faith," Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh said of his party's showing: "Together, we can do a lot more for Singapore and we have to work hard for it. Today's results are positive but we have to hit the ground running. We should not get over our head with the results."
Some in the opposition were crying foul over the decision to keep polls open until 10 p.m., ostensibly because COVID-19 safeguards slowed down voting. The Singapore Democratic Party, a smaller opposition group, protested the move, calling it "highly irregular." Tan Cheng Bock, leader of the Progress Singapore Party -- which ultimately came up empty -- said it "compromised the integrity of the process."
But in a note issued in the government's gazette when the extension was decided, the Returning Officer said it was based on "powers conferred by section 39(3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act."
After the loss, Tan said he was "proud" of his party's performance and that it would not be "deterred by this disappointment."
Under the island nation's first-past-the-post electoral system, the party that wins the most votes in a given district wins all the seats in the area. Constituencies in this election have anywhere from one to five seats, depending on size and population.
This time, the PAP campaigned on a platform targeting citizens' concerns about COVID-19, vowing steady stewardship through the most serious crisis in decades. The virus has battered the city-state's trade-reliant economy, leading to projections of a 4% to 7% contraction for 2020 and applying pressure on a ruling party that has traditionally built support by delivering strong growth.
"Potential investors, and others too, are watching our election closely," Lee said in a final pitch to voters on Thursday night. "They will want to know if Singapore still has what it takes to sustain our edge, especially in a crisis." But he also stressed that "one day, the pandemic and the recession will be over."
"When that day comes," Lee said, "we must be ready to resume our journey onward and upward."
Opposition groups, though, accused the PAP of losing focus on fighting the pandemic. Singapore was initially lauded as a model for handling the health crisis, but the government drew criticism for failing to stop explosive outbreaks in crowded dormitories for migrant workers. This is why the country has recorded more than 45,000 coronavirus cases, though the death toll stands at 26.
The PAP's rivals argued that Prime Minister Lee's government should have done better, avoiding the surge in cases and economic shutdown that damaged livelihoods.
Sylvia Lim, chair of the Workers' Party, argued on election eve that the PAP relies on a false notion that an "open and fair society with press freedom will cripple a government's ability to act quickly and firmly."
"COVID-19," she continued, "has shown that this is a false scare tactic. New Zealand, Taiwan, Denmark, Australia, Finland and South Korea have successfully tackled the coronavirus. Many may argue they have done so as well as, if not better than, Singapore."
On the other hand, the PAP stressed it was serious about saving jobs and creating new opportunities, pointing to the more than 90 billion Singapore dollars ($64.6 billion) already earmarked for stimulus measures.
"We may not be able to save every job, but we will help every worker," Lee said on Thursday. "Those who have been affected are already receiving support from the government."
This pitch seems to have worked, with voters once again entrusting power to the party that has run the country since independence in 1965. The PAP government will now have a fresh five-year term. Within that time frame, Prime Minister Lee is expected to retire, making way for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Typically, parliament is dissolved for an election before the term expires, as happened this year ahead of the expiry in April 2021. Either way, the PAP ranks with the Workers' Party of North Korea and the Communist Party of China among the world's longest-ruling parties.
"Dominant parties in East Asia like the LDP of Japan, KMT of Taiwan and UMNO of Malaysia had fallen from power" in the past, noted Lam Peng Er, a senior research fellow at Singapore's East Asian Institute. "But not the PAP of Singapore."
Lam went so far as to suggest the PAP might even "outlast" the Communist Party in Beijing.
"Only time will tell."