Saturday, February 26, 2011

PM: Lower hurdle for opposition parties

Feb 26, 2011

Smaller GRCs and more single-seat wards offer more scope for contest
By Li Xueying & Elgin Toh

POLITICAL parties planning to contest the next election have to clear a lower hurdle than at previous polls, the Prime Minister declared yesterday in his first comments on the new electoral map.

He pointed to key changes in the way electoral boundaries are demarcated this time round, in line with guidelines he announced in Parliament in May 2009.

As a result, the average number of MPs per group representation constituency (GRC) has come down from 5.4 to five. The number of six-member GRCs has been whittled down from five to two, while that of single-member constituencies (SMCs) goes up from nine to 12.

'This should lower the hurdle for parties intending to contest the elections,' Mr Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday in comments to the media.

The boundary changes unveiled on Thursday also affect many incumbent MPs, he said. In other words, the changes hit People's Action Party MPs too.

The new boundaries leave the two opposition-held SMCs of Hougang and Potong Pasir intact, but sweeping changes have hit most of the other nine SMCs. Five have been absorbed into GRCs, while eight new ones have been created.

There are 15 GRCs in the new map, up from 14, with four-member GRCs making their first appearance since 2001.

Yesterday, meetings were called and phone calls made as politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition huddled to discuss the new boundaries and what they mean for their plans.

Over at Kolam Ayer, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Environment and Water Resources, convened a quick meeting with his branch activists last night. Kolam Ayer is part of Jalan Besar GRC, a large part of which will now be in the new Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Meanwhile, leaders of opposition parties heated up phone lines as they negotiated anew who should contest where. For now, nothing is confirmed until they hold a pow-wow slated for early next week.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, noted the opposition's past protests about large GRCs standing in the way of them contesting - and winning.

'Now, with two four-MP GRCs, this takes away some of the excuses they have given over the years,' said Mr Lui, whose ward in the six-member Tanjong Pagar GRC has been drawn into the new four-member Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

However, opposition politicians and political observers are divided on the extent to which the changes truly lower the hurdle for opposition parties.

Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim concedes that, given her party's stand against the GRC system, 'any step that makes the GRCs smaller is a step in the right direction'.

WP treasurer Eric Tan agrees that 'smaller GRCs and SMCs are logistically easier to contest, especially if an opposition party is there for the first time'.

But he added: 'That said, the changes don't go far enough to restoring the level playing field. You can't first dilute people's rights, and then dilute them less - and call that a concession.'

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong welcomes the increase in the number of SMCs, but said a more important factor in electoral politics is working the ground and developing relationships.

'Merging SMCs into GRCs and then creating new SMCs - these affect the way opposition politicians can work the ground, so I don't think the overall difficulty has been reduced by much,' he said.

Still, the electoral reforms reverse the trend towards ever-larger GRCs and fewer SMCs that began in 1988, the year GRCs were introduced.

The boundary changes are a 'carefully calibrated move to liberalise the electoral system, to promote more competition', said constitutional law lawyer Thio Li Ann.

The PAP strategy appears to be to 'open up the field, allow for more contests, but not to the point that it threatens the strong state', she added.

Mountbatten resident Loh Ming Hiang, 53, a hawker, is excited about the prospect of voting for the first time in 20 years. Mountbatten SMC has been carved out of Marine Parade GRC.

'Everyone has his own views and these views can be expressed only through the vote. I think the Government should allow for more single seats,' she said in Mandarin.

As for PM Lee, who is also the secretary-general of the ruling PAP, his assurance is that 'whichever way the boundaries are drawn, PAP MPs and candidates will do their best to serve the voters, and to win their support in the next election'.

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