Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is the opposition READY TO ROCK?

Nov 20, 2010
As the General Election nears, Insight takes a party-by-party look at the state of the opposition. Have the various parties been making the rounds? Do they have enough candidates? Are they ready to go into battle with the ruling party? Kor Kian Beng, Zakir Hussain, Tessa Wong and Andrea Ong report.

SOME operate like stealth fighter planes, preparing for electoral battle while flying under the radar.

Others are like cavalry troops, declaring their intentions openly as they charge into People's Action Party-occupied territories.

The various opposition parties may have adopted different strategies but they seem to be heading towards a common goal: to contest as many seats as possible in the coming elections.

Based on what opposition leaders and sources tell Insight, they look like they are gearing up for the biggest electoral fight since 1988 when the opposition contested 70 out of the 81 seats.

The Workers' Party (WP), National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Reform Party (RP) are aiming to field at least 20 candidates each for the upcoming polls.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), a grouping of three opposition parties led by Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong, plans to put up at least eight candidates. This is assuming the alliance, now riven by infighting between Mr Chiam and his former protege Desmond Lim, stays intact.

Up to 10 candidates can be expected from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the newly minted Socialist Front.

What all this means is that the opposition is eyeing or working the ground in all 14 GRCs and nine SMCs totalling 84 seats for the general election which is due by February 2012.

Of course, their battle plans hinge on whether the parties will have enough finances for electoral deposits and the campaigns to contest so many seats.

They are also based on the current electoral map, which will be redrawn when the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee publishes its report. The recent electoral amendments will pave the way for at least 12 SMCs and fewer six-member GRCs in the next polls.

[Perhaps the PAP recognises 3 things: 1) the voters want more opposition in parliament; 2) the quality of the opposition candidates are getting better; 3) if the opposition takes a GRC the PAP would lose at least 1 minister and a few MPs, and the opposition are good enough to possibly take a GRC.

So far, opposition candidates have only gained ground in 2 SMCs. Offering more SMCs could divert some of the opposition efforts to SMCs and away from GRCs. Consider: the number of credible opposition candidates are relatively small. Expecting a high potential opposition candidate to lead a board of no-names, low potential candidates to victory against the PAP slate of candidates is quite a long shot. For example, Sylvia Lim might do better in an SMC than trying to lead a GRC where her co-candidates may be more of a liability than an asset.]

Any boundary changes, however, should not dampen the intense interest of the opposition parties. Those eyeing or working in the current wards are likely to stake their claims on any new SMCs or GRCs that will be carved out.

If two or more parties have their sights on the same ward, expect the usual electoral talks and horse trading to avoid three-cornered fights.

An all-out blitz at the next polls means the opposition is abandoning the by-election strategy used in previous elections. Under this strategy, the ruling party is returned to power on Nomination Day so that voters will feel free to vote for the opposition without risking the fall of the PAP Government.

Another aim is to pin PAP heavyweights down in their own wards so that they have less time to campaign for fellow candidates in other wards.

Yet another factor behind the move by the opposition parties to cover all bases could be to maximise their chances of winning in the light of the new electoral changes.

Opposition candidates will have more chances to enter Parliament, following amendments to the Constitution to guarantee a minimum of nine opposition MPs, whether elected or via the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme.

As NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng notes, the expanded NCMP scheme helps the party as more potential candidates will be willing to stand in the next polls, as they see the NCMP post as a step towards getting elected in future.

Political commentator Alex Au says that by 'just shooting at more targets', an opposition party will have a higher chance of chalking an unexpected win or two. But the risk of a three-cornered fight, which tends to split the opposition vote, is also higher, he cautions.

At the end of the day, the big question is: The opposition parties may have the numbers to contest all seats but do they have enough quality candidates to rake in the votes and improve on their showing at the 2006 polls?

The PAP's vote share at that election was 66.6 per cent, a drop from 75.3 per cent at the 2001 polls, which was held in a year dogged by terrorism and recession. It was the best opposition showing, in terms of vote share, since 1997.

Pundits think the answer is a probable yes, given the stable of new faces unearthed by RP and SDP. They include social work advocate Vincent Wijeysingha from SDP, and former government scholars Tony Tan Lay Thiam and his wife Hazel Poa from RP.

If WP's line-up in the last elections is any guide, it will unveil yet another crop of well-educated candidates.

But whether the newcomers will have the gumption to survive the electoral campaign and the perseverance to stay in opposition politics if they lose the next polls is anybody's guess.

Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore's political science department says the quality of opposition candidates will be a key factor deciding the next GE's outcome.

Much will, of course, depend on how the issues are fought between the opposition parties and the PAP at the hustings and how they resonate with the voters.

Expect immigration, housing, cost of living and health care to be among the top issues that the opposition will be campaigning on, based on the manifestos that have been released or are being worked on now.

But also expect, as previous elections have shown, the unexpected.

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