Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Survival-of-the-fittest rule for the opposition

Dec 7, 2010

An 'anything but PAP' mentality among voters may not help opposition

By Elgin Toh

EVERY now and then, political reporters here would bump into a voter like Mr K.J. Chua.

When I had a chance meeting with the 44-year-old MacPherson voter two months ago, he told me, matter-of-factly: 'I have always voted against the People's Action Party (PAP).'

Mr Chua, a small business owner, says he wants to keep the ruling party on its toes and longs for an alternative voice in Parliament. A hardcore opposition supporter he certainly is.

I looked up past records of general elections to get a sense of which party Mr Chua might have voted for over the years. He grew up in MacPherson and still lives in the single-seat ward today. Since he has never voted for the PAP, he would have voted for the Singapore Democratic Alliance in 2006, the Democratic Progressive Party in 2001 and the Singapore Democratic Party in 1997.

In other words, in each general election, he would have been willing to back any opposition candidate from any opposition party that challenged the incumbent PAP candidate in his ward. That his preferred candidate always lost served as no deterrent.

I used to think that Mr Chua's voting strategy was a logical one given his desire for a credible opposition in Parliament. I no longer do, thanks to a Frenchman by the name of Maurice Duverger.

Maurice who?

The political scientist is one of the most cited scholars in his field. His famous theory, formulated in the 1950s, was hailed by one fellow academic as the only rule on human behaviour that social scientists have proven beyond reasonable doubt. Researchers are so impressed by the theory it is now called 'Duverger's Law'.

In short, Duverger observed that first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting - what is used in Singapore, as well as in the United States and many other former British colonies - results in two-party systems.

FPTP voting - also known as winner takes all, since only the candidate with a plurality of votes is elected - is believed to incentivise voters opposed to the ruling party to converge on one particular opposition party. This avoids splitting the votes among multiple opposition candidates. Over time, opposition voters across the country would find it convenient to unite around a single party. Hence, a two-party system is born.

This would explain why the US president for the past 141 years has either been a Democrat or a Republican. In Britain, winner takes all has produced either a Labour or Conservative government over the last 65 years; the coalition that took office this year is an aberration.

The obvious question, then, for observers of the Singapore political scene is this: Why hasn't the two-party prophecy been fulfilled here?

Part of the answer is that PAP's good governance and track record - as well as its 'calibrated coercion', in the view of one scholar - has made it difficult for opposition parties to find traction.

But Duverger's Law would also suggest that opposition supporters like Mr Chua may actually be making it harder for a single major opposition party to emerge. They are voting indiscriminately for any opposition party instead of converging on one.

But such voters may argue that a single credible party has not yet emerged. Thus it makes sense in the meantime for them to vote for any party that challenges the ruling party, and in so doing, help spur the growth of the opposition as a whole.

But as counter-intuitive as it may sound, that is actually a mistaken strategy. The reality is that bad opposition parties are denying that single, credible opposition party the space it needs to grow. Just as bad money drives out good, bad opposition parties crowd out good.

For one thing, when resources and people are divvied up among many opposition parties, a critical mass fails to build up. To use a boxing analogy, five half-hearted jabs do not have the equivalent effect of one knockout punch.

In Singapore, the gentlemen's understanding among opposition parties on the so-called 'first right to contest' has made the situation worse. Under this informal agreement, whichever opposition party contested a particular constituency in the previous election is given the 'first right to contest' it in the next. If that party does contest that seat, other parties do not field candidates in the ward so as to avoid three- or four-cornered fights.

This agreement in effect protects weak parties and allows them to remain in the fray simply because they have 'been around'. Natural selection - the survival of the fittest - is not allowed to take its due course.

This artificial perpetuation of non-credible opposition parties leads to another deleterious effect - what I would call 'tainting with the same brush'.

Seeing weak opposition parties in action causes many voters to dismiss, wholesale, the entire opposition camp. A credible opposition party is therefore tainted with the same brush. A common refrain among voters here - 'all opposition parties are irresponsible' - demonstrates this effect.

What would Duverger advise voters such as Mr Chua to do? His advice would probably be two-pronged.

One, quickly decide which opposition party to converge on. One sensible way to do this, of course, is to simply pick the party that polled best against the ruling party in the previous election.

Two, vote for that party when it contests the ward you are in. In the event some other opposition party is challenging the ruling party candidate, the determined opposition supporter should just spoil his vote. This would send a strong message to weak opposition parties: Time to pack your bags, for you are holding back the opposition cause.

If opposition supporters don't kill off weak opposition parties today, they will inadvertently be killing off any likelihood of a credible opposition force emerging tomorrow.


An example of vacillating opposition members:

Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD), "which seeks to promote democracy among Singaporeans, is led by executive director James Gomez, who works at Monash University in Melbourne as its head of public relations.

Dr Gomez is perhaps best known as one of the Workers' Party's candidates in the 2006 general election. He is now a Singapore Democratic Party member."

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