Singaporeans vote for new government amid coronavirus pandemic

Wearing face masks and gloves, Singaporeans were voting on Friday in a general election that is expected to return the ruling party once again to power but the result could be a test for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s handling of the economy during the COVID-19 crisis.

singapore elections, coronavirus pandemic, Peoples Action Party, COVID-19 pandemic, covid 19 cases in singapore, recession, world news
Singapore has one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world and initially earned widespread praise for its efforts. (AP photo)

Wearing face masks and gloves, Singaporeans were voting on Friday in a general election that is expected to return the ruling party once again to power but the result could be a test for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s handling of the economy during the COVID-19 crisis.

Voting began at 8 am and will end at 8 pm with the first count expected late at night. Morning slots have been reserved for voters who are 65 years and older to minimise their interaction with younger voters and to allow them to vote ahead of others, the Elections Department (ELD) said on Thursday.

The ELD apologised to voters for the “longer than usual” queues at polling stations on Friday morning due to wearing of gloves as part of the COVID-19 precaution. “ELD would like to apologise to voters for the longer than usual queues that they have experienced this morning,” it said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

“More voters had turned up this morning than expected outside their assigned voting time-bands,” it said. The ELD has done away with the requirement to wear disposable gloves as this had contributed to long wait times, Channel News Asia reported.

It said the step in particular had “contributed to the longer than usual voting times”. However, gloves are still available for voters who would like to use them in addition to hand sanitiser, the report said.

“We seek the understanding of all voters and advise voters to keep to their assigned time-bands where possible to avoid crowding,” the ELD said while also reminding voters to continue to practise safe distancing. As of noon, 840,000 people, 31 per cent of the registered voters, had cast their vote in Singapore, the ELD said.

A total of 2.65 million people will vote on Friday as voting is compulsory in Singapore and the government has declared Friday a holiday. Eleven political parties, including the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), campaigned for nine days amid the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 that has pushed the city-state’s economy towards the worst-ever recession in nearly two decades.

It has been an election season like no other, as candidates and voters alike sought to navigate safety measures and provisions brought about by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Voters heading to the polling stations are “strongly encouraged” to check the queue situation before setting off, the ELD said.

In a bid to enhance the safety of voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of polling stations has been increased from 880 to 1,100, The Straits Times reported. This means each station will serve an average of 2,400 voters, down from 3,000.

“Family members voting at the same polling station may accompany the senior voter to voter. However, only one accompanying family member will be accorded priority voting, along with the senior voter,” it said.

Prime Minister Lee last month called for general elections 10 months ahead of the schedule to “clear the decks” and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate to focus on the national agenda.Lee’s People’s Action Party has won every election since the late 1950s. When the party’s share of the vote dipped to about 60 per cent in 2011, which was considered an upset.

The ruling party is expected to win comfortably in the election but the 68-year-old Lee’s handling of the coronavirus crisis could decide the vote share this election. The main opposition Workers’ Party is likely to pose the stiffest challenge.

A total of 192 candidates from 11 parties, including the PAP, will contest parliamentary seats through 17 Group Representation Constituencies which groups together candidates in four or five, and 14 Single Member Constituencies. While the PAP has not fielded any Indian-origin candidate in this election, the opposition parties have fielded about a dozen of them.

The ruling PAP is the only party with candidates contesting on all 93 seats. This is the second general election that the opposition has fielded candidates in all seats in Parliament.

In the last elections in September 2015, the PAP contested all 89 seats and won 83 seats, an absolute majority in the house. The Workers’ Party secured six seats. Observers are watching if the Workers’ Party can increase their seats this time in Parliament.

Prime Minister Lee’s estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang recently joined the Progress Singapore Party, bolstering the opposition camp. However, he is not fighting the elections. The two brothers are involved in a legal tussle of their family house-property.

Overall, the opposition calls have been to limit the PAP’s expected win to less than two-third of the seats in Parliament, calling it ?blank cheque? or no absolute majority.

Lee, who is the country’s third prime minister, has led the government since 2004. His father Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s first prime minister and he transformed the city-state into an affluent nation during his 31 years rule.

Most of the issues raised during the campaign were about jobs and future employment with the increasing presence of foreigners both professionals and labour class, gap in wages of workers and executives, the withdrawal of Central Provident Fund on retirement at the age of 55 and spending of national reserves.

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