Thursday, March 10, 2011

Deep fissures behind Opposition bravado

It has resolved to make history by contesting all 87 seats, but can the Opposition overcome its disarray?

Mar 07, 2011

by Eugene K B Tan

Many Singaporeans will welcome the Opposition's declaration and resolve to contest in all 87 seats in the coming General Election.

If it indeed comes to pass, this will be a milestone in our political development: It will be the first time in independent Singapore's history that all parliamentary seats will be contested.

One view is that by not having any People's Action Party (PAP) walkovers would enable the Opposition, collectively, to "lock down" the PAP big guns in their own constituencies. In previous elections, senior PAP leaders could move around at will on the campaign trail to help canvas valuable support for their less-established party colleagues seeking election.

For Singaporeans, the opportunity to vote should not be underestimated. Voting is easily the most significant expression of a citizen's political participation in his country's future. And this time round, much more could be at stake than the erosion of the PAP's dominance by a parliamentary seat or two.

The possibility of the PAP not securing a two-third majority of all seats, much less losing power completely in the coming GE, appears very unlikely. In the 2006 GE, the PAP secured 66.6 per cent of the total valid votes cast. Granted, of the 84 seats only 47 were contested, and of these 45 went to the PAP under the first-past-the-post system.

However, if we were to use the 66.6 per cent popular vote as a proxy for support for the ruling party, and if at this upcoming GE every seat is contested, then a 17-per-cent swing in votes away from the PAP could result in a chance that the ruling party might lose power. This seems far-fetched. But such a significant swing in voter preference has happened before. In the 1972 GE, the PAP won with 70.4 per cent of the votes, a sharp drop from its 86.7-per-cent share in 1968. Between the 1980 and 1984 GE, there was a 12.9-per-cent drop in popular support for the PAP.

[Extrapolating from a high 86.7% drop to 70.4% is unrealistic. High percentages of votes almost always mean electoral fraud. In this particular case, it was more of the people pulling together and getting behind the party they trust to get them out of poverty. The alternative was the Workers' Party. A 70% vote is still pretty high but reflected the more secure, less "crisis" phase and people started considering alternatives. Again, the 1980 to 1984 is a drop from a relative high of 77.7% to 64.8%. I would agree that approximately 60% - 66% of votes is probably the norm for PAP, if they are to maintain a dominance in Parliament - i.e. not more than 5 opposition.]

Should a similar "freak" election outcome such as that once feared by the Prime Minister then, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, come to pass, the Opposition could come to power, amid the harsh reality that it has no experience and expertise to govern Singapore. Not yet.

[That depends on PAP stalwarts and swing votes. If the PAP core voters (who votes PAP no matter what) is less than 50%, then it is possible that a swing against the PAP would cause it to fall out of power. However, from "recent" polls (from 1991 which was about the low point for the PAP - and about 20 years ago), the PAP has never polled less than 60%. Has the ground shifted since? One issue is whether the PAP is still delivering. The other, is whether the opposition can deliver instead. Or what does the opposition offer?]

Would citizens vote more conservatively, knowing a change in government was a possibility? In GEs past, the Opposition had hoped returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day would make voters more bold.

But the reality is that voter behaviour is unlikely to be swayed significantly by the prospect (or impossibility) of leadership change. Voters rarely factor in how others will vote; foremost in their consideration is what is in their own best interest. To be sure, the PAP will still remind voters to cast their ballot prudently, emphasising the importance of a strong mandate.


Indeed, the promise of a full-fledged contest against the PAP belies the deep fissures within the Opposition, and the transient and episodic nature with which some of the parties take to affairs of the state.

How soon will it be before the Opposition parties can say, with all certainty, that they know where they are contesting, and without there being three-cornered fights?

The second pow-wow on Saturday evening - two weeks after the publication of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee's report on Feb 24 - ended without the all-important agreement on who will contest where.

Throw in the wild-card factor of independent candidates and, with the GE imminent, the picture is not rosy for the Opposition.

At a time when the parties should be resolutely covering the ground in the areas they are contesting, they are still undecided as to who would carry the flag for the non-PAP camp in 11 out of 27 electoral wards.

Any seat with more than one Opposition contestant is a sure recipe for splitting the non-PAP vote bank and, subsequently, defeat. Yet, some parties seem to be holding out for as long as they can for the turf they are eyeing.

This stalemate does not inspire confidence. Notwithstanding the assertions that progress has been made, the horse-trading, bilateral deals and further bargaining all suggest the Opposition parties will probably not be fielding the best possible candidate or team in every SMC or GRC seat.

In part, the disarray reflects the fact that more parties are likely to contest this GE than in 2006. Quite a few parties are either very new or very small, or non-existent between elections. They lack resources to mount an effective campaign but they want to contest. The other part of the matter is, even as the electoral battle against the ruling party looms, egos, ambition and boardroom politics are getting in the way of any concerted strategy.

[Chiam is old and his wife does not enjoy his same popularity. It is a mistake for him to move out of Potong Pasir, but at this point, I think it is a mistake for him to even stand. He should bow out gracefully, but bowing out is probably not in his vocabulary. I predict that this election will be his last and he won't win. SPP will fade away. It is too personality-driven, it would seem.

SDP suffers from the lack of credibility of Chee. They are and have been a side show for the longest time.

RP as the NKOTB was promising, but the sec-gen's inability to work with anyone will be its Achilles heel. Frankly, I do not see any potential for this party so far. But maybe they are working the ground, and know how to pull in support. I don't see it. They seem to attract the elites and the metropolitans more than the heartlanders, so I really don't see how they will click with the voters.

NSP was and has always been a promising party that seem moderate and reasonable. But why do we want PAP-lite when we can have PAP?

Low can still hold onto his seat and Sylvia Lim might have a chance at a GRC, but I think she would have a better chance in an SMC. The problem is which SMC?

The two longest serving opposition shows you the kind of people that are electable - grassroots, people-oriented candidates. Elites and intellectuals offer nothing for the voters. PAP at least mix-and-match with cerebral types like Ng Eng Hen, Shanmugan mixed with grass-roots MPs like Ang Mong Seng, Teo Ho Pin, and Chan Soo Sen. These balances out the PAP slate.]

Certainly, raising the stakes for Opposition contestants is the fact that the next Parliament will have to up to nine Non-Constituency MP seats for the best-performing Opposition losers. So it is no surprise that of the 12 SMCs - seen as easier routes to the NCMP seats, with the ruling party less likely to field a ministerial heavyweight there - the parties have reached agreement on only Potong Pasir and Hougang, both now Opposition-held, and two other SMCs.

Things look better for the Opposition in the GRCs: Only three await resolution. However, the Opposition has not won in a GRC since the scheme was introduced in 1988.

[The increase in SMC should mean that opposition will have to decide, should someone like Sylvia Lim, who has some credentials as an NCMP, try to lead a team to try to take a GRC, or should she go for an SMC with a better chance of winning? The increase in SMC may well be a tactic to undercut the opposition's best people, and to minimise the risk to PAP's GRC. Certainly, if the PAP had a choice, they would rather have all the SMC won by opposition than even one GRC fall. That would mean losing one Minister-level candidate at least.]

Time is of the essence for the Opposition. We should not be surprised if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong decides to dissolve Parliament when the current debate on the Committee of Supply estimates ends.

It remains to be seen if the Opposition can capitalise on the excitement surrounding the prospect of an 87-seat fight, and pose a serious challenge to the PAP's hegemony. Or will the reality of disunity bite?

The writer is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.

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