Thursday, March 10, 2011

How deep does Opposition unity run?

Past elections show, avoiding three-way fights or fielding vast number of candidates is no surety for victory

Mar 10, 2011

by Loh Chee Kong

It is often tempting to distil abstract concepts and ideas into a single axiom.

Like how the absence of three-cornered fights in the coming General Election (GE) is the ultimate yardstick for Opposition unity - a notion that has been floated by political pundits and Opposition figures alike, both in private and in public.

True, protracted negotiations, with no resolution in sight over which parties should contest in most of the Single-Member Constituencies, hardly makes a strong case for unity.

But the measure of "Opposition unity" - a term thrown around too frivolously at times - is more than just friendly horsetrading and public statements espousing consensus rather than conflict.

It is also not necessarily about singing from the same hymn sheet or having identical ideas and style.

It is about coming out with and adopting a common strategy, regardless of personal rifts or disagreements - even if it involves multi-cornered fights.

A case in point: The 1991 GE, when the Opposition won an unprecedented four seats.

While no one can say with authority whether the Opposition's success was down to the "by-election strategy", it was the only time that the Opposition camp had a common game plan and, barring a few detractors, actively worked on it.

Then, Opposition leaders in the major parties - apart from Workers' Party chief J B Jeyaretnam, who did not support the strategy - dissuaded some prospective candidates from standing in the elections to ensure that fewer than half the seats were contested.

The thinking was that with the ruling party safely returned to power on Nomination Day, voters would be more bold to vote for Opposition candidates in their constituencies.

That year, a total of 45 Opposition or independent candidates vied for 40 out of the 81 seats up for grabs.

In the five three-cornered fights that ensued, one was among two opposition parties and the rest featured independent candidates (the PAP candidates, predictably, triumphed in all five cases).

In contrast, the most recent 2006 GE - which was historic on several counts - achieved the rarity of a straight fight between the PAP and an Opposition party in all the wards contested, with no independent candidates entering the fray. In all, 47 Opposition candidates took part in head-to-head contests with PAP candidates.

Only two - Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang - emerged victorious.

The 2006 GE was also the first time since 1988 that the PAP was not returned to power on Nomination Day - sounding the death knell for the by-election strategy, which was arguably adopted only once. (While the Opposition had also contested fewer than half the seats in the 1997 and 2001 GEs, on those two occasions, it was out of necessity rather than choice as it had limited number of candidates.)

This scenario is likely to repeat itself this time round.

Listening to Opposition figures who have been quoted in media reports so far, one can detect a certain "gungho-ness" for the coming elections. Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam - echoing his late father's disdain for the "by-election strategy" - went as far as to describe it as a "loser's strategy" on Channel NewsAsia's Talking Point programme recently.

The Opposition is setting its sights high: It is purportedly fielding at least 77 candidates in the coming elections, a new record since the 1988 GE which featured 71 Opposition candidates (and only one won).


Of course, numbers do not tell the whole story. At every GE, there are different issues and the mood of the electorate is never the same. And like others have pointed out, the "by-election strategy" - first conceived almost a quarter of a century ago - has perhaps outlived its use.

But the figures culled from past elections tell a simple fact: The GE is not a numbers game and fielding the most number of candidates does not always maximise the Opposition's chances. If the Opposition is hoping to make a splash in the coming GE, unity is a must - and it is more than just avoiding three-cornered fights.

[Unity is nothing. It is not about unity. It is about viable, credible alternatives. The opposition can be united in dumbness and that would sell no tickets and win no votes. The people want alternatives they can believe in. Looking at the current opposition MPs, what works are MPs that the voters can believe in. Low and Chiam work and engage the ground and connect with their voters on their concerns. Highfalutin ideas and concepts like democracy cut no ice with the voters. ]

A variation of the by-election strategy has been mooted in the Opposition camp: Fielding a "dream line-up" of the 12 strongest Opposition candidates in the SMCs and boycotting the GRCs. But that is an unlikely prospect.

Fielding as many candidates as it can, could very well be the Opposition's gameplan for the coming elections but at the moment, that seems to be driven more out of each party's own ambitions, rather than a co-ordinated attempt to lock down the PAP big guns on their home turf.

Attacking common national issues from different angles, carving out GRCs across the country and contesting them as multiple single-seats (particularly against PAP newbies) or forming regional blocs out of traditional Opposition strongholds - these possibilities and more are probably being mulled over by Opposition strategists.

But the Opposition will need to articulate its strategy soon, in one form or another, to set the agenda for the hustings. This is something it has found hard to do in recent elections.

[The agenda is also difficult because the PAP does not cleave to any specific ideology. So it is hard to pin them down to a position to attack. PAP is for meritocracy. Attacking meritocracy makes one seem pro-cronyism or pro-guanxi. PAP is for clean incorruptible government. You can't be against clean govt and the alternative of trying to find dirt on PAP MPs, while not impossible, is undermined by PAP's own swift response to any suspicion of corruption. PAP is pro-growth. Here, perhaps the hope is to paint the PAP as pursuing "growth at all costs" at the expense of the less able or less capable. There is some hope here, but it is not ideological opposites. The People's Action Party - how do you oppose them? The Elite Procrastination Party?]

And while having a game plan is a start, the devil is in the execution. It has always been difficult for the Opposition, with all its different personalities and ideologies, to come together. With such a large pool of potential candidates, the big question is whether it can be done.

Loh Chee Kong is the news editor at Today.

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