IN 2006, the opposition left seven out of the 14 group representation constituencies (GRCs) uncontested.
At the coming polls, the parties have already made a claim on 13 of the 15 GRCs. Only two - Sembawang and Tanjong Pagar - could enjoy walkovers this time, as no one in the opposition ranks has shown interest in contesting them.
And in another sign of a heightened interest in the GRCs, at least two GRCs - four-member Moulmein-Kallang and five-member Bishan-Toa Payoh - are being eyed by more than one opposition party.
The fierce contest for GRCs is a key reason that intense horse-trading is taking place in the opposition camp, ahead of a meeting next week to decide which party gets to contest where, to avoid three-cornered fights.
Opposition leaders and political observers yesterday gave reasons to explain the greater interest in gunning for the GRCs, a scheme introduced at the 1988 polls to ensure better minority representation in Parliament.
One key factor is that there are simply more opposition parties now and also more people willing to step forward as opposition candidates, said Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim.
In 2006, the active parties were the WP, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), a grouping headed by Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong.
Now, there are six active opposition parties, including two newcomers, the Socialist Front and the Reform Party. The latter is taking aim at two GRCs - Chua Chu Kang and West Coast.
Ms Lim said that even though the WP is opposed to the GRC system, which it deems to set unfair barriers, it will focus resources to strike at it.
'The only way to roll back the GRC system is for the PAP to start losing one,' she said. Also, winning a GRC will allow the opposition to have a sizeable number of elected MPs in quicker time, which will help achieve a strong system of checks and balances.
'This will help achieve a strong system of checks and balances against the PAP,' she said.
National Solidarity Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng said the party is gunning for GRCs to strike a 'body blow' to the PAP. This is because a GRC victory could mean the ouster of a Cabinet minister as GRCs are usually helmed by the leaders.
Said Mr Goh: 'If the opposition wins a GRC, it would show that there is no safe fortress, even for ministers, and that accountability can be extracted from the ruling party.
'All other ministers would realise that they could actually lose in a GRC and would think harder about their ministries' policies.'
At the coming polls, the party is planning to go after ministers in up to three GRCs - Moulmein-Kallang, Jurong and Tampines. In 2006, the party contested the Jalan Besar and Tampines GRCs, under the SDA alliance, which it later left in 2007.
But a GRC win has so far eluded the opposition, as GRCs pose greater challenges than single-member constituencies, said some leaders. The closest that the opposition came to winning a GRC was in 1988 when the People's Action Party (PAP) won with just 50.9 per cent of the valid votes in the three-member Eunos GRC.
By 1991, the PAP had clawed back that share to 52.4 per cent under a four-member GRC there. Since then, the strongest opposition assaults, whether in Cheng San in 1997 or Aljunied in 2006 failed to garner similar margins. The PAP scored 54.8 per cent and 56.1 per cent of valid votes in Cheng San and Aljunied respectively.
Opposition figures noted that the greater number of seats needed and the minority-race requirement meant a tougher battle for them.
Political analyst Derek da Cunha, author of the book The Price Of Victory: The 1997 Singapore General Election And Beyond, said that in order to capture a GRC, opposition parties would need significant resources on par with those of the PAP. It would also need to field opposition candidates of a similar stature to potential office holders anchoring the PAP team, he added.
[The opposition need to have at least 3 "stars" in their lineup. Sylvia Lim may be an asset, but James Gomez? An opposition GRC team may have at best one lead who would be a vote puller, but the rest would be no-names, and liabilities. Opening up the number of SMC would further dilute the challenge the opposition can mount against PAP's GRC. Sylvia Lim has a better chance taking on an SMC, then leading a team of no-names in a GRC fight.]
If the opposition scored a GRC win, it would be a major psychological boost as 'the toppling of a Cabinet minister would give a clear indication that the PAP was vulnerable', he said.
But then, the very presence of the Cabinet ministers in GRCs has been the key obstacle, he said. 'That makes the hurdle extremely difficult for the opposition to surmount. The PAP is heavily entrenched in virtually all the constituencies.'
KOR KIAN BENG AND TESSA WONG