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Politics

Singapore weighs early election after coronavirus 'circuit breaker'

Opposition decries unclear rules for safe campaigning amid pandemic

SINGAPORE -- Singapore on Tuesday emerged from its coronavirus shutdown and turned its attention to the timing of the next general election, as politicians and pundits drop hints that polls are near.

After about two months of "circuit breaker" restrictions -- with some easing along the way -- the city-state has moved into a phased reopening period, allowing schools and many businesses to resume. This is fueling speculation that the government will soon call the election, which must be held sometime before April 2021.

The latest sign that a vote is imminent came last week, when Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat told state broadcaster Channel News Asia that "elections are coming nearer by the day, and you have to be prepared for it."

Heng is the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party -- the No. 2 position after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is expected to retire after the election. Heng is seen as the front-runner to replace Lee.

The Straits Times newspaper on Saturday reported that the election could be held in July, citing Heng's remarks and political experts' views that early polls would allow the PAP, assuming it wins, to focus on pressing issues like spurring the economy.

The ruling party might benefit from an early election while business activity is stirring back to life, as it could emphasize the improvement and the government's support measures. Early voting would also mitigate mid-term uncertainties, such as the risk of another wave of COVID-19 infections in the coming months.

"In terms of strategy, the PAP is trying to take advantage of the pandemic," said Alan Chong, associate professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"Although the [infection] numbers are still going up, there is a silver lining. So now it's politically good for them to talk about an early election," Chong said, though he added that the ideal window might be October or November, when presumably the economy will be fully open.

Chong said the upcoming vote is significant for Singapore because it will usher in the next generation of leaders, and because it comes amid a transformation of the global economy that will affect the city-state's future growth -- including the shift to remote technologies, digitalization and decentralization.

The PAP has made no secret of its desire to press ahead with the vote. Earlier this year, a government committee redrew the electoral boundaries -- considered a clear sign of an impending election. But Heng's latest comments sparked criticism from the opposition.

"There has been a distinct lack of clarity as to precisely how campaigning will be modified in view of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Workers' Party, the largest opposition group, responded in a statement.

The Singapore Democratic Party, another opposition group, said: "It is clear that the PAP is determined to hold the election despite the ongoing pandemic. It must not be allowed to pull a quick event and gloss over existential threats to our society, many brought about by the PAP itself."

Last month, the government did pass a bill that sets out special arrangements for voting amid the outbreak. It states that citizens who are quarantined in hotels or hospitals would be allowed to cast ballots outside their assigned districts. Potential candidates, who by law must file their nomination papers in person, would be authorized to have a representative file on their behalf.

But the legislation does not set rules on specific safety measures at polling stations or how parties should conduct campaigning. In past elections, opposition rallies attracted large numbers of people, but big gatherings are still prohibited as a coronavirus precaution.

Even when restrictions are further loosened in the next phase of reopening -- which could kick in later this month -- the government says social gatherings will still be limited to five people.

Medical workers prepare to perform a nose swab on a migrant worker at a dormitory in Singapore in mid-May.   © Reuters

The Workers' Party insists that more clarification is needed. "While Singaporeans continue to focus on overcoming COVID-19, general elections are an essential feature of our democracy that should not be taken lightly," the party said. "Contesting parties should know the ground rules as soon as possible, in order to be well-prepared to offer Singaporean voters their best efforts at the polls."

The PAP, of course, has never lost an election. Founded by Lee Kuan Yew -- the city-state's first prime minister and Lee Hsien Loong's father -- it has ruled interrupted and dominated parliament. In the last election in 2015, it won 83 of the 89 seats contested.

Nevertheless, it is likely to decide the timing of the next election carefully, as it faces some unprecedented headwinds.

Singapore's economy is expected to contract by 4% to 7% this year, according to the government's latest projection. This would be the worst performance in the country's history.

The city-state's coronavirus cases, meanwhile, reached 35,292 on Monday -- the highest in Southeast Asia due to outbreaks in densely packed dormitories for foreign workers. This has caused a labor shortage in sectors that heavily rely on these workers, further constraining the economy.

Joblessness is on the rise. As of March, the overall unemployment rate was 2.4%, up from 2.3% in December. Looking at Singaporean nationals only, it rose to 3.5% from 3.3% during the three months, touching the highest level since December 2009.

Amid all this, Prime Minister Lee faces a challenge from his estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who has backed the Progress Singapore Party. This new opposition group is led by PAP veteran and former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock.

Voting is compulsory for Singaporeans aged 21 or older, and 2.6 million people are eligible for the upcoming election. Singapore would not be the first major Asian economy to go to the polls during the pandemic -- South Korea held a national assembly election on April and saw the highest turnout (62.2%) in 28 years.

A key question for Lee and the PAP is how much their coronavirus support measures will resonate with the public.

To offset the economic pain from the pandemic, the government has served up stimulus packages worth over 90 billion Singapore dollars ($63 billion). That is equivalent to nearly 20% of the city-state's GDP. The measures include wage subsidies for affected employers and cash handouts to all citizens of voting age.

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