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Politics

Singapore lurches toward poll as coronavirus limits rallies' size

Report published on city-state's electoral borders signals elections are near

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, pictured with his wife Ho Ching, has told the city-state that the coronavirus outbreak could last a year or longer.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- A general election in Singapore is looking imminent even as the widening global coronavirus pandemic threatens to raise the risk of widespread transmissions of the COVID-19 disease in the city-state.

In the clearest sign yet that polls are near, a keenly-awaited report on Singapore's refreshed electoral borders was published Friday, raising criticism from opposition politicians over the timing of the impending election.

In previous polls called in 2011 and 2015, elections were held less than three months after the release of the electoral borders reports. Singapore's parliament, which is dominated by the ruling People's Action Party under its secretary-general Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is due to be dissolved for the next election which must be held by April 2021 -- the end of the current government's term.

However, the ruling party, which has had an unbroken reign in the city-state for about six decades, has not completely used up its terms of government ahead of previous elections -- preferring to head to the ballot boxes early time and again.

Political boundaries in Singapore are set based on factors including changes in population density across the island-state. In the previous election, political parties could field one to six members to contest a certain area, or constituency.

Map of Singapore's electoral boundaries with borders outlined in red.   © Singapore Electoral Boundaries Review Committee 2020

The latest report states that teams of five are the largest that can be fielded in a constituency, making six-member teams a thing of the past. Opposition politicians have in the past complained that the need to form large teams to contest an election was a hinderance.

The report also said that that next parliament would have 93 seats, up from the current 89. There are some 2.59 million Singaporeans who can vote in the coming election, up from 2.46 million previously.

The current coronavirus crisis has heightened uncertainty over the timing of the polls. For past elections, large political rallies held by opposition parties attended by thousands of people were the norm during campaigning.

Health authorities have advised organizers of any mass gatherings to reduce the scale of events to less than 250 participants where possible as a precautionary measure against the further spread of the virus.

"We will then ask all event organizers, whether it's for rallies, or for conferences, or for any other thing: 'just think about these guidelines and then apply them accordingly'," Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said at a news conference on the coronavirus just hours before the electoral borders report was released.

In a televised address to Singaporeans the night before, Prime Minister Lee had warned that the outbreak could last a year or longer, with Singapore expecting more cases of infection coming from outside its borders, with local transmission not yet widespread.

"COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, there are baseline things that we must get used to, like practicing good personal hygiene, adopting new social norms and discouraging large gatherings, and generally, maintaining some physical distance from one another," Lee said.

The opposition Singapore Democratic Party has lashed out at the ruling party, calling for the government to "categorically rule out" an election until signs are clear that the outbreak has ebbed. It said in an update on its website that not doing so would mean the ruling party was putting its own interests over people's safety.

"We hope that the PAP will not capitalize on the crisis by holding the general election at this time as it will take away valuable resources needed to combat the virus outbreak and jeopardize the public's health and well-being," the opposition party said.

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