Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What might the result be? Four possible outcomes

May 7, 2011

Voters head to the ballot box today in Singapore's most fiercely contested polls since 1963. Most people expect the Government to be returned to power with a resounding majority of seats in Parliament.

They also expect the People's Action Party's overall share of the popular vote to drop in the 82 out of 87 seats in which it is facing a contest. In 2006, it was 66.6 per cent.

What is less certain, however, is just how many seats the PAP will lose and what impact the result will have on the national political landscape. Going through the numbers, there are four broad probable scenarios. What might each of them mean for the PAP, opposition parties, and politics in Singapore in the coming years?Political Correspondent Zakir Hussain reports

Scenario 1: Opposition wipeout

WITH both Singapore People's Party (SPP) chief Chiam See Tong and Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang vacating their respective longstanding opposition bastions of Potong Pasir and Hougang respectively, there is a real possibility that the PAP could romp home with all 87 seats in Parliament in its hands.

This is if both opposition veterans fail in their bids to win over Bishan-Toa Payoh and Aljunied Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and their nominated successors in Potong Pasir and Hougang also fail to win.

It may seem like the dream result for any government, yet some political watchers believe '87-0' to be an outcome that the ruling party might itself dread.

This is especially since it will come at a time of unprecedented anger towards the PAP not seen in over 20 years.

It would be even more jarring if this clean sweep came even as the PAP's share of the popular vote falls below 60 per cent.

Even a one-seat opposition victory - WP stronghold Hougang - would take the House back in time to 1984, where then WP chief J.B. Jeyaretnam was the sole opposition MP till the general election that year.

Nanyang Technological University academic Cherian George notes that in such a scenario, many Singaporeans would find it hard to accept that the new Parliament reflects the will of the people.

In an essay this week, he said: 'If the PAP monopolises the next Parliament with a low popular vote, the government will be embroiled in exactly the political debates it so hates - having constantly to defend Singapore-style democracy, instead of getting on with the job of securing Singapore's long-term livelihood.'

Such a result would also mean the loss of some of Singapore's most experienced opposition MPs in Parliament.

Granted, changes to the Constitution last year provide for a minimum of nine opposition MPs through the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme, but both Mr Chiam and Mr Low have said they will not take up seats.

NCMPs cannot vote on constitutional and supply Bills, and as they do not have physical constituencies, government agencies are not obliged to respond to their requests on behalf of residents.

The People's Action Party has argued that the NCMP system provides a platform for aspiring elected opposition MPs to build up their standing.

But opposition parties have maintained that such a system does not allow them to effectively represent residents, a point the Workers' Party has noted at repeated rallies during the campaign.

Some observers do not discount such a 'freak' outcome leading to rising disillusionment with the nature of the present first-past-the-post system, forcing possibly some sort of electoral reform.

Scenario 2: Marginal opposition gains

A SECOND outcome would be less drastic than a clean sweep, but equally disheartening for the opposition parties and the voters who regularly support them at the polls.

In this scenario, opposition parties win a handful of single member constituencies (SMCs) - two, three, or at best four - but fail to break through the GRC barrier.

The likely seats that might swing their way, Hougang and Potong Pasir aside, include Joo Chiat and Sengkang West, where the Workers' Party is contesting, and Pioneer and Mountbatten, where the National Solidarity Party (NSP) is standing.

Such an outcome would maintain the status quo between the PAP and the opposition that has been in place for 27 years.

There have been only two elected opposition MPs in the House since 1984, barring the years from 1991 to 1997 when there were four opposition MPs, including Mr Chiam and Mr Low.

In 1991, Mr Ling How Doong was elected MP for Bukit Gombak while Mr Cheo Chai Chen was elected MP for Nee Soon Central.

Both men, who were then with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), however, failed to meet residents' expectations and lost their seats at the next elections in 1997, leaving the House with two elected opposition MPs again.

For the PAP and its supporters, such a result could be read as an endorsement of its policies and its track record.

But it would also mean that anti-PAP voters will continue to be under-represented in Parliament.

'This is a very unhealthy development,' said political observer Derek da Cunha in a forum last month. Dr da Cunha, who has followed local politics for the past 20 years, said that he has never seen the ground so polarised as it is today, with those against the Government and its policies 'vehemently so'.

If this is indeed the case, then either this scenario or the '87-0' scenario could spell trouble ahead for the next general election in five years' time. If voter angst boils over and the PAP suffers another big swing, several GRCs could fall in one fell swoop.

More crucially, for the opposition, a troubling inability to gain ground even in such favourable circumstances could force a fundamental rethink of its approach.

Has it somehow misread the signals from the electorate?

Should the different opposition parties unite, as has been suggested, to pool their best resources and candidates?

And should it be under the Workers' Party's umbrella, since the WP is widely regarded as the strongest opposition party?

Scenario 3: One GRC to opposition

THIS election, the Workers' Party (WP) is best placed to make a historic breakthrough by winning Aljunied GRC at the polls, in addition to retaining the Hougang single seat.

Should this come to pass, the ruling party will lose Foreign Minister George Yeo and Minister (PMO) and Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua as MPs.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said last week that the loss of Aljunied GRC would not be a major setback for the party, which would fight to win it back. But should it fall, it would also be more difficult for the PAP to win back the GRC at later polls, and the WP's influence could spread to nearby GRCs like East Coast and Moulmein-Kallang.

For the opposition, such a win would break a psychological barrier of sorts and debunk the widespread perception that it is impossible to break into a GRC.

The victory could also likely tone down criticism that the electoral process, which was reformed in 1988 to include GRCs, is unfairly skewed in favour of the incumbent.

With a greater number of seats, analysts expect the WP to be able to attract better qualified candidates and contest more seats in future elections.

Aljunied would also be a solid base for the party to publicly demonstrate its ability to run a large town council in a way that is different from the PAP.

But most importantly, the increased presence of an elected opposition in Parliament could go some way towards appeasing a growing section of angry or dissatisfied voters in the electorate.

Some argue that it would better reflect, and possibly even relieve, the groundswell of sentiment that has erupted against the PAP and its policies in recent years in such areas as public housing, immigration, transport and health care.

Such a development would also mark the start of a new era in Singapore politics - where the opposition has at least seven of the 87 elected seats in Parliament.

This is a mere 8 per cent, small by the standards of most mature democracies.

But as political observer Derek da Cunha notes: 'This election may be a tipping point for a segment of the electorate. It could mean the opposition vote solidifying and the irreducible core of staunch opposition voters growing beyond one-quarter of the electorate.'

Scenario 4: Big swing to opposition

A FOURTH, more remote, possibility is that even as the opposition wins its first GRC, a second, and even a third, changes hands.

Apart from Aljunied GRC, some punters feel that Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC could also tip into the opposition camp.

Most voters there have not cast their ballot for some 20 years. At the same time, the Singapore People's Party team contesting Bishan-Toa Payoh is led by Mr Chiam, while the Singapore Democratic Party team led by civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha includes former senior public servants Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan; so both slates are tipped to put up tough fights.

It is also an open question whether a swing away from the PAP could impact East Coast GRC, where the Workers' Party's second-best slate of candidates is contesting and has walked the ground since the last election. Or might the National Solidarity Party make an impact in Chua Chu Kang GRC, where its team comprises former government scholars Hazel Poa and Tony Tan Lay Thiam?

If this happens, there could be more than one opposition party with a sizeable influence in Parliament, and these parties can expect to grow much faster in the years to come.

But they will be thrust into the limelight and possibly compared with each other - forcing them to shape up or risk being shipped out at the next polls.

Looking at the picture, the loss of one or more GRCs will allow Singaporeans to see for themselves exactly how a bigger opposition presence in Parliament alters the political landscape.

Will it live up to its billing and improve the quality of debate? And can it really force a rethink of certain PAP policies?

Much will depend on how the elected opposition MPs perform, and this will, in turn, have a direct impact on the result of the next polls. It might even be argued that such a scenario will make for a more predictable transition into multi-party politics in Singapore compared to one in which the PAP suffers a catastrophic loss of seats at some future election because the electorate's pent-up frustration was not duly addressed.

For the PAP, the loss of several more ministers is likely to prompt a great degree of soul-searching on the scale of its post-mortem of the 1984 election results, which saw a historic 12.8 percentage point swing in the party's share of the popular vote.

That post-mortem report, written up by then newly elected MP Lee Hsien Loong, said the party had to change its purely rational approach towards selling its policies, engage people emotionally, and engage its opponents in ways different from those of the past.

Twenty-seven years on, whatever the election result, the ruling party may need to reform itself once again.

If the past eight days of campaigning are any indication, that shift may have already begun.


No comments: