Commentary

NO 1/2013

Electoral results from Singapore’s most recent-by elections continue the electorates’ shift away from the Republic’s long standing ruling People Action Party, but the island’s opposition parties remain disparate.

On Saturday 26 January 2013, the Worker’s Party (WP) won the Punggol East by-election with 54.52 per cent of the valid votes, while People's Action Party (PAP) received polled 43.71 percent. The WP won the election with a vote swing of 13.5% compared to its performance in the last general elections in the same constituency when it polled only 41%.

The by-election held on Saturday at the electoral division of Punggol East is the second since the city-state’s last general elections held some twenty-one months earlier. Apart from the issue of the large vote swing against the PAP, the by-election also generated discussions on the merit of multi-party contest, opposition unity and electoral strategies to unseat the ruling party in the next general elections in 2016.

In May 2011 the PAP came into power, uninterrupted for the 11thconsecutive time since independence, but it did so with an all-time low of 60% of the popular vote. The elections saw a national vote swing of 6.46% against the PAP compared to the 2006 elections. The opposition Worker’s Party won 6 of the 87 elected parliamentary seats and collected 2 of the 3 non-constituency member of parliament (NCMP) seats.

This result was achieved largely with Singapore’s many opposition parties avoiding multi-party contests and instead accommodating each other into straight fights with the ruling party.

In Singapore, opposition “unity” has been mainly pursued as electoral contest pacts verbally agreed to just before each general election. It is a loose agreement among opposition parties to avoid three or more corner contests often as a result of horse-trading carried out just before nomination day. The aim is to ensure a straight fight with the ruling party.

The long-held belief behind this aim is to avoid splitting and diluting votes among opposition parties but instead increasing their chances against the ruling PAP.

Since May 2011, Singapore has seen two by-elections where the issue of opposition cooperation has been raised as search for a formula to effectively unseat the incumbent PAP in Singapore’s next general elections due in 2016.

In the run up to the first by-election held one year after the last elections, Singapore’s other opposition parties such as the National Solidarity Party, Reform Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People’s Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance issued statements that they will not participate in that by-election. The sub-text of these statements was that the Worker’s Party, being the incumbent opposition party, should be afforded a straight fight against the PAP.

Although there were some murmurings in the media of some possible independent candidates, in the end it was a straight fight for the opposition Worker’s Party with the ruling party. The Worker’s Party held the seat, albeit with a slightly lower majority of 62.09% compared to 64.8% a year earlier. The seat fell vacant because the WP sacked its MP for failing to explain allegations in the media of an extra-marital affair with a female party member.

Eight months later, in the January 2013 by-election, sentiments among Singapore’s other opposition parties was a lot more different. The electoral division of Punggol East, which was also made vacant this time due to the resignation of the PAP MP over an extra-marital affair and was the only constituency that saw a three-way contest in May 2011, elicited more interest from other opposition parties.

Only the NSP and SPP issued statements that they will not be seeking to contest the by-elections. The Singapore Democratic Party expressed a strong interest to contest and initiated intensive grassroots outreach in the immediate run up to the by-elections. But the SDP chose to withdraw 2 days before nomination day stating it was doing so because it was heeding the public’s call not to force a multi-party contest.

But this did not deter the Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance which joined the fray making it a four-way contest. However, the Singapore Democratic Alliance candidate, who in the previously election lost his election deposit for polling only 4.5% managed, again lost his deposit for not crossing the required minimum of 12% of the votes to recover the electoral deposit. He polled only 0.57 percent of the votes while the Reform Party's candidate obtained only 1.20 per cent of the votes.

The results of the by-elections, contrary to the popular belief held in some quarters in Singapore, did not dilute the oppositions’ chances vis-à-vis the PAP as the Worker’s Party won with a comfortable margin. In the city-state’s last by-election in a single member constituency held in 1981, the Worker’s Party’s candidate JB Jeyaretnam won the seat with 52% in a three way contest with the PAP polling 47% and the United People’s Front obtaining only 1%.

The results of the latest by-election in Singapore has prompted some political observers to suggest that if the margin of vote swing continues into the city-state’s next general elections in 2016, several single member seats and group constituency seats which are about ten percentage points away can be expected to fall.

However, representatives from both the PAP and WP were quick to state that observers should not read the vote swing from this by-election to forecast the next general elections as the conditions of a by-election and different from a general elections.

Nevertheless, the significance of the latest Singaporean by-elections the second in only eight months, is the role of opposition parties and their ability to unseat the PAP moving forward on the back of voter shift away from the ruling party.

During this by-election campaign, the Worker Party responded to criticism that it was not cooperating with other opposition parties, by stating that cooperation is difficult in an opposition landscape that was mixed and complex. Hence the party preferred to go it alone with its new total of 7 elected and 2 NCMP seats.

Apart from electoral contest pacts, other forms of opposition collaboration by way of formal and informal alliances, mergers, sharing of candidates have been explored and executed in post-independence Singapore. However, these efforts have often not lasted beyond several election cycles.

A reason for this impasse has been the preference, especially among elected opposition party leaders’ to either drive their own grand alliance or directly helm their own party to ensure control.

As a result, Singapore’s major opposition parties continue to operate largely as separate entities without an electoral pact or common platform heading towards the next general elections. For political observers this will be an area to focus on to see how Singapore’s opposition landscape pans out in the next couple of years.

Associate Professor Dr. James Gomez is research fellow at UUM Research Institute for Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore (ITS). He can be contacted at gomez@uum.edu.my.

Singapore Voters Continue Shift Away From Ruling Party By : James Gomez

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Electoral results from Singapore’s most recent-by elections continue the electorates’ shift away from the Republic’s long standing ruling People Action Party, but the island’s opposition parties still remain disparate.

On Saturday 26 January 2013, the Worker’s Party (WP) won the Punggol East by-election with 54.52 per cent of the valid votes, while People's Action Party (PAP) received polled 43.71 percent. The WP won the election with a vote swing of 13.5% compared to its performance in the last general elections in the same constituency when it polled only 41%.

The by-election held on Saturday at the electoral division of Punggol East is the second since the city-state’s last general elections held some twenty-one months earlier. Apart from the issue of the large vote swing against the PAP, the by-election also generated discussions on the merits of multi-party contest, opposition unity and electoral strategies to unseat the ruling party in the next general elections in 2016.

In May 2011 the PAP came into power, uninterrupted for the 11thconsecutive time since independence, but it did so with an all-time low of 60% of the popular vote. The elections saw a national vote swing of 6.46% against the PAP compared to the 2006 elections. The opposition Worker’s Party won 6 of the 87 elected parliamentary seats and collected 2 of the 3 Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats.

This result was achieved largely with Singapore’s many opposition parties avoiding multi-party contests and instead accommodating each other into straight fights with the ruling party.

In Singapore, opposition “unity” has been mainly pursued as electoral contest pacts verbally agreed to just before each general election. It is a loose agreement among opposition parties to avoid three or more corner contests often as a result of horse-trading carried out just before nomination day. The aim is to ensure a straight fight with the ruling party. 

The long-held belief behind this aim is to avoid splitting and diluting votes among opposition parties but instead increasing their chances against the ruling PAP.

Since May 2011, Singapore has seen two by-elections where the issue of opposition cooperation has been raised as a formula to effectively unseat the incumbent PAP in Singapore’s next general elections due in 2016.

In the run up to the first by-election held one year after the last elections, Singapore’s other opposition parties such as the National Solidarity Party, Reform Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People’s Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance issued statements that they will not participate in that by-election. The sub-text of these statements was that the Worker’s Party, being the incumbent opposition party, should be afforded a straight fight against the PAP.

Although there were some murmurings in the media of some possible independent candidates, in the end it was a straight fight for the opposition Worker’s Party with the ruling party. The seat fell vacant because the WP sacked its MP for failing to explain allegations in the media of an extra-marital affair with a female party member. The Worker’s Party weathered some political fallout and held the seat, albeit with a slightly lower majority of 62.09% compared to 64.8% a year earlier.

Eight months later, in the January 2013 by-election, sentiments among Singapore’s other opposition parties was a lot more different. The electoral division of Punggol East - which was also made vacant this time due to the resignation of the PAP MP over an extra-marital affair - elicited more interest from other opposition parties. This was not surprising as it was also the only constituency that saw a three-way contest in May 2011 general elections.

This time only the NSP and SPP issued statements that they will not be seeking to contest the by-elections. The Singapore Democratic Party expressed a strong interest to contest and initiated intensive grassroots outreach in the immediate run up to the by-elections. But the SDP chose to withdraw 2 days before nomination day stating it was doing so because it was heeding the public’s call not to force a multi-party contest.

But this did not deter the Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance which joined the fray making it a four-way contest. The Singapore Democratic Alliance candidate in the previously election lost his election deposit for polling only 4.5%. This time he polled only 0.57 percent of the votes while the Reform Party's candidate obtained only 1.20 per cent of the votes. Hence, both candidates lost their deposit for not polling the required minimum of 12% of the votes.

The results of the by-elections, contrary to the popular belief held in some quarters in Singapore, did not dilute the oppositions’ chances vis-à-vis the PAP as the Worker’s Party won with a comfortable margin. In the city-state’s last by-election in a single member constituency held in 1981, the Worker’s Party’s candidate JB Jeyaretnam also won his seat with 52% in a three way contest with the PAP polling 47% and the United People’s Front obtaining only 1%.

Although there are difference in by-elections and general elections as well as single and group seats, the results of the latest by-election in Singapore has prompted some political observers to suggest that if the margin of vote swing continues into the city-state’s next general elections in 2016, several single and group seats which are about ten percentage points away can be expected to fall.

However, representatives from both the PAP and WP were quick to state that observers should not read the vote swing from this by-election to forecast the next general elections as the conditions of a by-election and different from a general elections.

Nevertheless, the significance of the latest Singaporean by-elections, the second in only eight months, is the role of opposition parties and their ability to unseat the PAP moving forward on the back of voter shift away from the ruling party.

During this by-election campaign, the Worker Party responded to criticism that it was not cooperating with other opposition parties, by stating that cooperation is difficult in an opposition landscape that was mixed and complex. Hence the party preferred to go it alone with its new total of 7 elected and 2 NCMP seats.

The issue of opposition cooperation is not new in Singapore politics. Apart from electoral contest pacts, other forms of opposition collaboration by way of formal and informal alliances, mergers, sharing of candidates have been explored and executed in post-independence Singapore. However, these efforts have often not lasted beyond several election cycles.

A reason for this impasse has been the preference, especially among elected opposition party leaders’ to either drive their own grand alliance or directly helm their own party to ensure control. Hence, overtures by opposition parties without elected MPs are often ignored.

As a result, Singapore’s major opposition parties presently operate largely as separate entities without an electoral pact or common platform heading towards the next general elections. This is a conversation that needs to take place if Singapore’s opposition parties want to take advantage of the electorates’ emerging shift away from the ruling PAP. For political observers it will be interesting to see how Singapore’s opposition landscape pans out in the next couple of years.

 

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Institute for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, Universiti Utara Malaysia, 06010 UUM Sintok, Kedah Darul Aman, MALAYSIA.

Tel: +604-9287766 | Fax: +604-9287799 | Email: research.its@uum.edu.my