COMMENT: Presidential Election 2017 - What could happen in a one, two or three-horse race?

Vernon Lee
Senior Editor
Salleh Marican (left), Halimah Yacob (middle) and Farid Khan (right) are the three prospective candidates who have announced their intention to contest in the presidential election, which will be held in September. Photo: Yahoo News Singapore

For the first time ever, and with more than a little controversy, Singapore will have an election reserved specifically for Malay candidates. But how many candidates will actually get to run? And will there even be an election?

As has been widely reported, there are three prospective presidential candidates: Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament and Marsiling-Yew Tee Member of Parliament, Salleh Marican, Second Chance Properties CEO, and Farid Khan, chairman of marine service provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific.

Ultimately, whoever gets to run is dependent on the Presidential Elections Committee, which will assess the eligibility of potential candidates.

Since the constitutional changes to introduce the Elected Presidency were made in 1991, there have been four elections. Two of them were contested in 1993 and 2011, and won by the late Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan, respectively. The other two elections went uncontested in 1999 and 2005, and both were won by the late S R Nathan.

The voting dynamics of every presidential election are different simply because the candidates contesting each time are different. In addition, the voter base increases and voter demographics change between elections. Nonetheless, there was a frontrunner in all four elections, and it was the candidate who was seen to be favoured by the establishment.

Yahoo News Singapore looks at the possible scenarios of one, two and three candidates in the 2017 presidential election and the voting patterns of previous elections to assess the potential impact on the so-called pro-establishment candidate.

One-horse race: In such a scenario, the candidate would almost certainly be a “pro-establishment” candidate.

But there has already been more than a whiff of controversy about the protracted political process that led to this reserved election, which included deliberations by the Constitutional Commission, a parliamentary debate and amendments to Singapore’s Constitution.

Detractors claimed that the real goal was to disqualify former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock from running. If voters are again denied an opportunity to choose their president – as in 1999 and 2005 – it may taint the incoming president and possibly even have a knock-on effect in the next General Elections.

Marican told reporters on Wednesday (23 August) outside the Election Department after submitting his application forms that Singaporeans will be “very disappointed” if there is no contest in the presidential election.

Two-horse race: This scenario is possibly the most intriguing.

In the 1993 electon, which was contested by two candidates, Ong won by a vote share of almost 59 per cent while relative unknown Chua Kim Yeow, a former accountant-general, attained a respectable 41 per cent. Ong, who resigned from the Cabinet to contest in the race, was widely perceived as the candidate favoured by the establishment.

In the 2011 election, which was contested by four candidates, Tony Tan was seen as the pro-establishment candidate. He barely won with a vote share of 35.2 per cent, or just 7,382 votes more than his closest rival Tan Cheng Bock.

Hypothetically, if it had been a two-horse race between Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock, would voters who had cast their votes for Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian in the actual election have given their support to Tan Cheng Bock? Or would they have picked Tony Tan?

Collectively, the votes cast for Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian totalled almost 30 per cent. If just a fraction of the votes for these two candidates had gone to Tan Cheng Bock, the latter would have comfortably won the 2011 race.

If the broad voting patterns in relation to the pro-establishment candidate versus other candidates in the 2011 election were to be repeated in a two-horse race in 2017, could the majority of votes be cast for anyone but the pro-establishment candidate?

And is there potentially a by-election effect in the event of a contested presidential election? In other words, could the voting preferences of a segment of pro-establishment supporters be different in this election compared with a general election?

Three-horse race: This is another interesting scenario.

Would a three-horse race enhance the chances of the pro-establishment candidate at the expense of the other two candidates due to the splitting of “opposition votes”?

Nonetheless, this could still prove be a risky proposition if the pro-establishment candidate is not favoured enough by the electorate. Consequently, such a race might turn out to be a tight one.

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