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Singapore poll sees ruling party's grip loosen

Despite expected victory, People’s Action Party suffers dip in vote share in wake of Covid-19 pandemic

Singapore poll sees ruling party's grip loosen

Singapore's Prime Minister and secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong, centre, and his wife Ho Ching, right, leave the party's office after delivering a speech live on Facebook to citizens during the counting of votes of the general election. (Photo: AFP)

Asia’s second national election at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the ruling party extending its unbroken rule in Singapore.

At the July 10 polls, just over 2.65 million voters self-scanned their identity cards, sanitized their hands and pulled on disposable gloves to cast their votes in the city-state.

The voters were allotted two-hour slots during which they were asked to vote to avoid crowding.

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Mobile polling stations were provided to voters who had recently returned from overseas and were in quarantine in hotels.

In a “fast, hygienic vote” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) secured 83 of 93 parliamentary seats. But its popular vote share dwarfed to 61 percent.

“It’s not as strong a mandate as I hoped for but it’s a good mandate,” Lee later told a news conference.

Several key PAP leaders, including two former ministers, lost and heir apparent Heng Swee Keat won his seat with a slim majority.

The Workers’ Party, the only opposition within the parliament, increased its tally from six to 10 – its best result.

Singapore lifted the two-month long coronavirus lockdown on June 2. The nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, the majority of which are related to migrant workers staying in cramped dormitories.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on the government's handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in the island nation. Singapore has compulsory voting and the recent election saw a voter turnout of nearly 96 percent.

As large-scale gatherings and public rallies are deemed a high risk during the pandemic, only a few countries have come forward to conduct their national elections during the past months. Singapore’s Asian neighbor South Korea voted in April and Serbia in Europe went to polls in late June. Croatia and Mongolia have also held the polls during the pandemic – in all nations the incumbent governments returned to power.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 45 countries and territories have decided to hold national or subnational polls since late February after the pandemic hit, while 67 countries have put off their polls.

Led by 68-year-old Lee since 2004, the PAP has been in power from 1959. The poll results threw cold water into Lee’s plan to call it a day at age of 70 and anoint deputy prime minister Heng Keat as his successor.

Heng Keat retained the East Coast district with a small margin of 53.41 percent vote share.

Keat’s lackluster performance is also attributed to his remarks last year that the wealthy nation is not ready to have a non-Chinese prime minister.

The poll result is the worst performance by the ruling party since 2011 when it won 60.1 percent vote share.

"We have a clear mandate but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for," Lee said.

 "The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this [Covid-19] crisis."

The mandate could change Lee’s succession plan, which he says follows meritocratic considerations.

Lee will announce his new cabinet within a few days and Singaporeans and its Asian neighbors are watching what portfolio Lee will ask Heng to man.

Lee may make Heng pay for his less convincing win in the polls.  Already, a soul-searching on the diminished popular support is on among the ruling party.

Lee had advanced the polls ahead of April 2021, when his government’s mandate expires, to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

The election results reflect voters’ strong demand to take them into confidence in a crucial matter like succession.

According to analysts, young and millennial Singaporeans also want a stronger mechanism for checks and balances to rein in the ruling party.

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