Monday, May 9, 2011

Singapore -a win-win election?

SINGAPORE belongs to a small category of places where a parliamentary election resulting in a victory of 81-seats-to-six, in favour of the ruling party, can be taken as a breakthrough for the opposition. Within that small category, it is probably unique in that the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) dominance relies on neither electoral fraud nor physical intimidation. Yet its dominance has been nearly absolute since 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia and began life as an independent city-state.

After the election on May 7th the PAP still faces few obvious constraints in pursuing its policies. It has a huge parliamentary majority, well above the two-thirds it needs to change the constitution. But this was its worst result since 1965 both in terms of the number of successful opposition candidates (the previous best was only four, in 1991), and in the PAP's share of the overall vote. At 60.1%, this compared poorly with the 66.6% it won in the previous election in 2006, which was itself disappointing after a 75.3% haul in 2001.

The opposition tapped a vein of resentment towards the PAP. Despite its success in making Singapore a rich, clean, law-abiding and pleasant city, the PAP has alienated many voters. A common perception is that it has lost touch with the concerns of the less well-off—about rising prices, especially of housing, and about the rapid influx of immigrants, notably from China. Of the population of just over 5m about a quarter are immigrants.

Some also feel the PAP is arrogant and high-handed, in its discrimination against opposition-held constituencies in the allocation of funds for upgrading public housing, and in its bullying tactics towards opposition politicians.

The emergence in this election of social-networking sites on the internet as a focus for opposition politicking changed the tone of the campaign. Even the docile mainstream media were forced to devote more coverage to the opposition, lest readers forsake them for the newer outlets.

So the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has struck an unusually humble tone, both during the campaign, when he actually apologised for some PAP missteps, and in acknowledging the landslide victory, which prompted him to promise some PAP “soul-searching”.

This tacitly acknowledges that Singapore’s winner-take-all electoral system leaves the losers even less proportionally represented than do most first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems. Singapore has a sort of “FPTP-Plus”. In 1988 it introduced “Group Representation Constituencies” (GRCs), into which some single-member constituencies were merged. The enlarged areas that resulted are contested by slates of candidates. The justification is to ensure representation for ethnic minorities, from which the slates have to include candidates.

Another effect however is to make it hard for the opposition, which is fragmented into a number of tiny parties, to find the resources or candidates to contest these seats. It has also helped unknown PAP candidates enter parliament on the coat-tails of the ministers who typically “anchor” a PAP slate. In this election, all but 12 of the seats were subsumed by four-, five- or six-member GRCs. The opposition had never won one, and often failed to contest most seats.

This time the opposition co-ordinated and fielded candidates in all but one of the seats—that held by Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, father of Lee Hsien Loong—where, on nomination day, opposition candidates arrived 35 seconds too late to register.

Moreover, two veteran opposition MPs—Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party, and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party—abandoned their single-member seats to take on the PAP in GRCs.

For Mr Chiam, the gamble did not pay off. His GRC slate lost, as did his wife, Lina, by just over 100 votes, when she stood in his former constituency. She is now eligible for one of three parliamentary seats, with limited voting rights, available to the best-performing losing opposition candidates. Mr Low and the Workers’ Party, however, triumphed, both in his former seat, and in the opposition’s first-ever GRC victory, in the Aljunied constituency, where he succeeded in toppling Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo.

Mr Yeo and his colleagues aside, both opposition and government can claim some sort of satisfaction from the election result, as can voters. Singaporeans, who seem still to trust the PAP to do an efficient job, in the aggregate want not an alternative government but a stronger opposition. And they have got one.

The danger for the opposition, as Cherian George, author of an excellent book on the politics of Singapore in the 1990s, pointed out in an online column, is that having succeeded in teaching the PAP a lesson at the polls, it will now “have to face the daunting possibility that the government actually learns it.” The Economist

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