Is Singapore Heading for an Election Amid its Coronavirus Challenge?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Is Singapore Heading for an Election Amid its Coronavirus Challenge?

There are growing indications that the country could be the first to hold a general election in the midst of the world’s battle against COVID-19.  

Last week, the release of the electoral boundaries report in Singapore intensified speculation that the country may soon be headed for an election. The growing speculation put the spotlight on Singapore’s attempt to deal with the global pandemic while also managing its evolving political dynamics, a challenge faced by several other countries within the broader Indo-Pacific region as well.

The PAP, one of the world’s longest-serving ruling parties, has governed Singapore since its independence in 1965 and won election contests fairly comfortably, with the last coming in 2015. But scrutiny on the country’s domestic politics has increased over the past few years as the PAP begins a gradual transition process that will see the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, son of PAP founder Lee Kuan Yew, eventually step aside as prime minister in the next few years, and Singapore’s next election due by April 21, 2021 expected to be held earlier.

Last Friday, speculation increased about an imminent election with the release of the electoral boundaries report. While a notable development in its own right, the report is a closely watched event within Singapore’s political calendar more broadly because the polling date in the past two general elections have occurred within three months of it being released. This year’s release is even more notable given that is comes amid the world’s battle with COVID-19, wherein Singapore has been among the more successful countries in combating the virus but has still seen over 200 cases so far, with the largest single-day increase to date of 17 cases recorded on Monday.

With Singapore still grappling with the coronavirus, the notion of an upcoming election raised questions about how such an exercise would be held amid this development. While Singapore is not alone in having to balance these various considerations in Southeast Asia – Myanmar is expected to hold polls towards the end of the year, Vietnam is heading for its Party Congress in 2021, Malaysia’s has been navigating recent political turbulence that led to the formation of a new government – if polls are held in the next few months, it would be first to actually hold an election in the region amid the global pandemic.

Over the weekend, Lee left the door open for early polls without specifying a date and noted that Singapore faces two choices amid his assessment that the pandemic could last at least this year and possibly longer: Hope things stabilize before April 2021 so that elections can be held under more normal circumstances with “no certainty of that,” or call elections early “knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it.” But some members of Singapore’s opposition opposed the idea of calling an election amid the pandemic, with Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan calling it the “worst of possible times” for polls and alleging that the PAP “cannot be more irresponsible to do something like this” when the focus should be on overcoming the virus.

To be sure, irrespective of the timing of Singapore’s election, few would bet against the PAP securing another win given that it won all but 89 elected seats in parliament in the last election in 2015 and opposition parties continue to face major structural obstacles in not only increasing vote shares, but translating those gains into seats and then sustaining that over multiple elections. Nonetheless, if polls are held in the next few months, the focus will shift to how Singapore manages to balance its fight against the coronavirus and conducting an election, with other countries in the region and the wider world also likely to have to walk this balance as well for the rest of 2020. In his weekend message, Lee said that if elections are to held before COVID-19 is over, precautions would be taken so that parties will be able to campaign and people will be able to vote safety as well.

As the speculation continues about Singapore’s election date, related political developments and wider domestic and foreign policy considerations will continue to be important to watch. As the world continues to battle the coronavirus, politics does not stop, and Singapore is no exception to this.