Singapore to vote for new govt on Friday; elections to test PM Lee Hsien Loong's handling of COVID-19

The general election, the first in Southeast Asia since the outbreak, is being held at a time when Singapore is heading towards its worst-ever recession in nearly two decades

Press Trust of India July 09, 2020 18:33:30 IST
Singapore to vote for new govt on Friday; elections to test PM Lee Hsien Loong's handling of COVID-19

Singapore: Singaporeans will vote on Friday in the region's first general election since the COVID-19 outbreak that will test Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's handling of the unprecedented health crisis that has pushed the city-state's economy towards the worst-ever recession in nearly two decades.

Lee last month called for general elections 10 months ahead of the schedule to "clear the decks" and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate to focus on the national agenda.

Prime Minister Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) has won every election since the late 1950s. When the party's share of the vote dipped to about 60 percent in 2011, it was considered an upset.

The ruling party is expected to win comfortably in the election but 68-year-old Lee's handling of the coronavirus crisis would decide the vote share this election. The main opposition Workers' Party is likely to pose the stiffest challenge.

A total of 192 candidates from 11 parties, including the PAP, will contest parliamentary seats through 17 Group Representation Constituencies which groups together candidates in four or five, and 14 Single Member Constituencies.

While the PAP has not fielded any Indian-origin candidate in this election, the opposition parties have fielded about a dozen of them.

A total of 2.65 million people will vote on Friday as voting is compulsory in Singapore.

The ruling PAP is the only party with candidates contesting on all 93 seats. This is the second general election that the opposition has fielded candidates in all seats in Parliament.

In the last elections in September 2015, the PAP contested all 89 seats and won 83 seats, an absolute majority in the house. The Workers' Party secured six seats.

Prime Minister Lee's estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang recently joined the Progress Singapore Party, bolstering the opposition camp. However, he is not fighting the elections. The two brothers are involved in a legal tussle of their family house-property.

Overall, the opposition calls have been to limit the PAP's expected win to less than two-third of the seats in Parliament, calling it blank cheque or no absolute majority.

Lee, who is the country's third prime minister, has led the government since 2004. His father Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore's first prime minister and he transformed the city-state into an affluent nation during his 31 years rule.

Most of the issues raised during the campaign were about jobs and future employment with the increasing presence of foreigners both professionals and labour class, gap in wages of workers and executives, the withdrawal of Central Provident Fund on retirement at the age of 55 and spending of national reserves.

Thursday is a Cooling-Off Day and no campaigning is allowed so that voters may reflect on issues raised during the campaign before casting their votes.

The impact of COVID-19 on jobs and incomes has been topmost on the minds of voters, which is also what any leader or government must focus on for Singapore after the election is over, Lee said on Wednesday.

"This is one of the reasons why I decided to call the elections now, so that we can clear our minds and focus on these big things which everybody considers important, and which are, in fact, the key issues in front of Singapore, he was quoted as saying by the Today newspaper.

Mapping out the challenges that Singapore has to confront and why this election matters, Lee said Singapore is set to face a difficult time over the next couple of years, as it deals with COVID-19 while protecting livelihoods.

He added: "The question is how we can get the strongest team to be given the mandate to be looking after Singapore and working with you to see you through this.

"How we can make sure that after this, Singapore has a bright future and all the hopes and dreams which we have had for our kids and grandkids that we have planned and prepared for will come to pass, not by itself, but because of our efforts together.

Thankfully, the COVID-19 situation so far has remained stable and the elections have been able to continue, he said at the PAP's closing rally.

Singapore has so far reported 45,423 COVID-19 cases.

"You will be able to vote safely, and for old folks, we're making special arrangements for them, Lee said, referring to the special polling time slots for seniors.

Indian-origin Pritam Singh, who is leading the Workers' Party, said, "We have put our best foot forward, focused very hard on campaigning and telling the public why this election is so important."

Singh, 43, said that his party was able to highlight some key messages such as the looming retrenchments caused by the coronavirus crisis, as well as the need to review the ratio of residents and foreigners in the economy since resident labour force participation will peak in this decade .

"As far as the Workers' Party is concerned, our focus has been to work hard on the ground, because that is where it really matters, Today quoted Singh as saying.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, 80, a former member of the PAP, is leading the Progress Singapore Party.

The election, first in Southeast Asia since the coronavirus outbreak, is being held at a time when Singapore is heading towards its worst-ever recession in nearly two decades as the country faces severe economic downturn due to the pandemic.

The gross domestic product (GDP) of Singapore is expected to shrink between 4 and 7 per cent this year, down from the previous projected range of a contraction between 1 and 4 per cent, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said in May.

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