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Coronavirus

Coronavirus raises uncertainty over timing of Singapore election

Observers believe polls may be held later than previously tipped

Some political experts say it is too early to gauge the public's overall sentiments towards the way the Singapore government has tackled the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- The outbreak of the new coronavirus in Singapore might prompt the country's ruling People's Action Party to call an election in the fourth quarter of this year, according to political observers.

Some had believed the polls would be called soon after the country unveils its 2020 budget next week on Feb. 18. But several observers have now said the current public health emergency might instead lead to the election being held closer to the end of the current government's term.

Political observers told the Nikkei Asian Review that the city-state's energies were now being directed towards handling the coronavirus outbreak, with the idea of holding an election amid an ongoing crisis, in which calls have been made for reduced physical contact between people, appearing to be irresponsible.

"If the government was to organize an election during this period, it [would have] terrible consequences," said Bilveer Singh, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Political Science department. It would divert the national focus away from the disease, which is effectively a national crisis at the moment, he said. "This is not the time to hold elections."

Analysts had expected that the budget next week might contain initiatives for Singaporeans that would help the prospects of the ruling party ahead of the election, such as financial relief for those struggling to cope with the cost of living in the city-state, which has garnered a reputation for being one of the world's most expensive places to live.

The focus, however, is now on cushioning the impact of coronavirus, which threatens to drag Singapore's trade-dependent economy down further after a year of anaemic growth in 2019, analysts said.

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, pictured, is expected to take over from current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the next government.   © Reuters

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is expected to take over from current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, sometime in the next term of government, has said that the budget is not meant to be a "goodie bag" but a strategic plan for the country's future.

And the city-state's political leaders have signaled that the budget will contain robust measures to deal with the fallout of coronavirus, which some economists have said could shave up to one percentage point off Singapore's 2020 growth prospects.

Polls in the country must be held by April 2021, but the ruling party, which has had an unbroken reign in the city-state for about six decades, has not used up its full government terms in previous elections -- preferring to head to the ballot boxes early time and again.

People have also been watching for the release of a report which will define the electoral borders within Singapore. The release of this report will be another indicator that elections are nearing, but so far it has not been published.

Political observers said the current health emergency was a golden opportunity for the ruling party to consolidate its support base by demonstrating to the public that it had a firm grip on the crisis.

"In times of crisis, the Singaporean voter has generally stuck with what they regard as a tried-and-tested party," Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, told Nikkei. "In times of crisis people tend to be less experimental with their votes," he said.

Tan said if the coronavirus situation in Singapore did not ease by the fourth quarter of this year, it might even prompt lawmakers to pass special legislation to allow for the election to be held after the current government's term ends in the interest of public health and safety.

"It shouldn't be inconceivable that the current parliament may have to pass new laws to allow for an election to be held after April 2021," he said.

Coronavirus threatens to drag Singapore's trade-dependent economy down further after a year of anaemic growth in 2019.   © Reuters

Should the coronavirus threat dissipate in the coming months, observers said the window for the ruling party to call an election might come after Singapore's annual marking of its independence on Aug. 9.

It is about this time that the prime minister traditionally gives what has come to be seen as his most important political speech of the year -- at an event known as National Day Rally.

Assuming that the coronavirus situation will have come under control by that time, political observers said this would be a platform for the leader to galvanize the country after a time of crisis, before heading to the polls shortly thereafter, close to or during the fourth quarter of the year, in order to ride a wave of solidarity in the aftermath of the public health scare.

Singh of the NUS said that if the current government succeeds in holding the trust and confidence of Singaporeans as it manages the crisis, the result could be an uptick of one to two percentage points of the popular vote for the ruling party when the election is finally held.

Alan Chong, associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, cautioned that the coronavirus outbreak should not be seen as an automatic translation to a higher vote share for the ruling party in the coming election.

He said more time was needed to gauge the public's overall sentiment towards the way the government has tackled the epidemic. "You might say that [the government has reacted correctly], or you can say they have overreacted. And we're beginning to see the disruption," Chong said.

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