Friday, April 29, 2011

Why the opposition should keep mum about its chances

Apr 29, 2011

GE 2011

By Elgin Toh

SOMETIMES, in politics, it doesn't pay to say what you believe to be true.
It does not follow that you should therefore lie about it - although many people do that. But it helps if you downplay it a little.

What am I talking about?
Let me offer a hypothetical situation.
You are a politician. You go on a talk show and the host asks you for your thoughts on a certain pop singer. A lover of classical music, you happen to absolutely loathe her tacky brand of pop music. What do you do?
Well, you pick something else about her to comment on, such as: 'It's great that she's become a role model for young people who need to know there are many paths to success.'
Now, let me offer a real-life situation.
Many opposition figures have come out to say they expect the People's Action Party (PAP) vote share to fall, perhaps sharply, in the coming General Election.
In the previous general election in 2006, the PAP's vote share was 66.6 per cent.
Some, like Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party (RP), have been talking about this for months. In February, he said his party had, during walkabouts, 'witnessed a sea change on the ground'.
More recently, Mr Steve Chia of the National Solidarity Party said on the day Parliament was dissolved that he had seen a 'groundswell of dissatisfaction' with government policies, which would cause votes to swing in the opposition's favour.
Then there is the RP 'suicide squad' challenging Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Ang Mo Kio GRC. On Nomination Day, RP team leader Alex Tan told reporters his team's chances against the PM were '50-50'.
My point here is not that these predictions are wrong. Some may indeed be proven right on May 7. Indeed, most political observers expect the PAP's vote share to dip.
What I am questioning, however, is the wisdom of trumpeting such predictions. Without realising it, they may actually be hurting the opposition's chances.
Sentiment in politics is not analogous to sentiment in the consumer market. In choosing a car, consumers feel assured in picking a popular make or model. It is a sign of reliability. 'All these guys can't be out of their minds, can they?' the buyer reasons.
In Singapore politics, the opposite is probably true. When people begin to doubt the PAP's chances at the polls, many will, ironically, feel compelled to vote for the PAP.
There are a few reasons for this.
For one thing, most Singaporeans cannot even begin to imagine a non-PAP government in power - not least because it has delivered good governance for more than half a century.
Two, none of the opposition parties is ready to govern. Since the 1963 GE, when the Barisan Socialis posed a serious challenge to the PAP, no single opposition party has fielded candidates in more than half the seats, let alone come close to forming a government.

That is not to say, of course, that all Singaporeans will vote for the PAP. Some 30 to 35 per cent of them consistently do not. Those who cross the non-PAP box, however, do so with the assurance that the PAP is likely to form the government despite their votes. Most simply want more checks and balances in Parliament.
PM Lee was probably spot on when he said in a television dialogue two weeks ago that even voters in opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir wanted the PAP as the national government.
What does this mean for the opposition?
In the opposition's current state of unreadiness, playing up its chances of making enormous strides is likely to harm them.
Doing so may cause some voters to harbour doubts about one thing: whether the PAP will hold on to power after Polling Day. It has been the consistent wish of most voters, including those inclined towards the opposition, for the PAP to remain in power.
The voter may ask: 'Will a freak result bring about a hung Parliament or even dislodge the PAP? Might property and stock prices take a plunge after Polling Day? I'd better play safe and do my part to prevent that from coming true.'
Indeed, in democracies where voting is not compulsory, political parties have even been known to do the opposite: play up their rivals' chances in order to motivate their own supporters to vote.
During the 2008 Taiwanese presidential election, for example, key Kuomintang (KMT) activists went on talk shows in the final days of campaigning to suggest that internal party polls showed the KMT in danger of losing. KMT's Ma Ying-jeou won with 58.5 per cent.
Voting here is compulsory. But the same logic applies, only to a lesser extent.
Swing voters may well have been thinking about spoiling their votes or casting sympathy votes for the opposition. But talk of a 'sea change' or a 'groundswell' - or worse, a '50-50' chance of unseating the PM - are predictions that may well scare swing voters into voting for the PAP.
If the opposition knows anything about voter psychology, it should change tack. Unless, of course, it is so confident of its appeal it thinks voters would not baulk at a change in government.

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