Holding election amid pandemic is 'double-edged sword', may tarnish PAP legitimacy: analysts

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of the People's Action Party celebrates after winning the general election in Singapore on 12 September 2015. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

UPDATE: The Elections Department has provided clarification on the proposed provisions of the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill.

SINGAPORE — Holding an election in Singapore amid the coronavirus outbreak is a risky prospect for the People’s Action Party (PAP) and may even tarnish the ruling party’s legitimacy, especially as there is currently no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, say analysts.

The Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday (7 April). It will allow the Elections Department (ELD) to implement temporary arrangements to ensure the safety of voters, candidates and election officials, in the event that a general election is called amid the outbreak.

Among the proposed provisions: aspiring candidates will not need to be physically present at nomination proceedings if they are ill or subject to quarantine or stay home orders. Voters on Stay Home Notice may also be allowed to vote from designated facilities.

The next election must be held by 14 April 2021.

The first reading of the Bill took place on the same day that a series of “circuit breaker” measures came into effect. Most businesses are now required to implement work-from-home arrangements. Schools have also closed, while eating establishments are only allowed to serve takeaways and Singaporeans are urged to stay home.

As of Monday, a total of 1,375 people have been infected with the coronavirus in Singapore, with 344 fully recovered and six deaths. Several new infection clusters have also emerged in foreign worker dormitories, with some 20,000 workers now quarantined within their dormitories.

‘Stealing the elections’

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that Singapore faces a decision on whether to wait out the pandemic to hold a normal general election, or to call the election early to form a government with a full term ahead of it to work on critical tasks ahead.

But Associate Professor Michael Barr of Flinders University in Adelaide, a long-time Singapore observer, was highly critical of the idea of holding a general election while COVID-19 continues to wreck havoc around the world. “To go to the polls early, with no particular reason beyond the convenience of the PAP, would be stealing the elections, pure and simple,” he charged.

Last month, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean also told Parliament that while no decision has been made on the timing of the next election, he stressed that a whole range of precautions can be taken for both campaigning and voting, such as live streaming of speeches on the Internet and adequate TV time for candidates.

Noting that it would be “irresponsible” to allow walkabouts or rallies during the pandemic, Assoc Prof Barr pointed out that the opposition thrives on rallies, whereas the PAP is generally embarrassed by “poor turnouts and boring speeches”.

“Being the incumbent on a playing field that is far from level, the PAP will easily find a new way to campaign, but the opposition will be silenced, with no new options open to it. The internet will provide limited opportunity because it is overwhelmingly an echo chamber of like-minded people.”

Furthermore, Assoc Prof Barr added, the internet would be policed for “alleged falsehoods” by the authorities, who can utilise the Protection Against Online Falsehoods And Manipulations Act (POFMA), the controversial anti-fake new law.

A ‘double-edged sword’

Other analysts disagreed that holding an election in the coming months would necessarily be to the PAP’s advantage.

Garry Rodan, emeritus professor at Australia’s Murdoch University, told Yahoo News Singapore, “Picking the most fortuitous moment for the PAP to face the voters is not as easy as in the past, given how difficult it is to know whether or when COVID-19 is under control.”

Nevertheless, Prof Rodan said the new Bill clearly indicates that the PAP has no intention of delaying the next election because of the limitations the current health crisis poses for the usual candidate nomination process or campaigning. “The PAP calculation is likely that the general anxiety of voters during the COVID-19 crisis will work in the PAP’s favour at the polls, as previous crises have.”

He added, “However, a contest under the conditions of this new Bill would be unprecedented and may not deliver the same sort of legitimacy previous results have for the PAP—even in a landslide.”

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan concurred that holding an election is a risk. He stressed that doing so would be a “double-edged sword” for the PAP, calling it a “fallacy” to assume that it is to the incumbent's advantage.

He pointed out, “If a voter believes the PAP is unnecessarily putting public health at risk by holding the GE, the voter may not cast a ballot for the PAP, all things being equal.”

“Alternatively, if a voter is of the view that the PAP is not handling the COVID-19 situation competently, then holding a GE amid the pandemic will also backfire.”

‘No disadvantage to waiting’

Assoc Prof Barr stressed that the PAP would not be handicapped by holding off on an election. “Even if we are not over COVID-19 by April next year, from the point of view of whether or not it is in the national interest to go for an early election or to wait, there is no disadvantage to waiting. If you have to have a GE during the pandemic, the timing won’t make a lot of difference to how it is run.”

He added, “The more interesting question, is what are they afraid of that they want to go to the polls early? Is it COVID-19 or a recession, or is it Tan Cheng Bock and the Progress Singapore Party?

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