By the normally staid, unchanging standards of Singapore politics, Friday’s election appears to be delivering significant changes. Though official results are not yet out as I write this, initial counts suggest that opposition parties are going to make real gains, and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is going to have one of its worst showings since it first came to office in 1959.
The opposition apparently has won two group representation constituencies—constituencies where a slate of candidates all run for office together—and even in areas where the PAP seems likely to win, its margin has been cut significantly from the previous general election. (The opposition has not won two group representation constituencies in any prior election, so this could be a landmark.) In addition, even in many areas the PAP won, its margin of victory was shaved significantly over previous elections. Overall, initial counts suggest, the opposition apparently has gained at least 5 percent more of the popular vote than in the last election, and perhaps an even greater swing has occurred.
Even in the group representation constituency where the PAP’s slate was led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the presumed successor as prime minister to Lee Hsieng Loong, the PAP only won with 54 percent of the vote. It is possible that the weak result in the constituency led by Heng Swee Keat might even lead the PAP to rethink whether he should be the presumptive next prime minister.
To be sure, the PAP is not in danger of losing its fearsome majority. It seems likely to take eighty-three out of ninety-three seats in parliament, and the structure of Singapore’s electoral system, with group representation constituencies that are also winner-take-all, makes it harder for the opposition to make massive gains in any election. But the PAP’s mandate will be weakened, with more opposition members in parliament and, probably, a far lower PAP share of the overall vote than in the last general election.
The government’s inconsistent, stumbling handling of COVID-19—after an effective initial approach, it allowed the virus to spread widely in dorms for foreign workers, and wound up with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia—the deep economic downturn, and the growing mobilization of opposition parties online all appear to have helped the PAP’s opposition. The opposition also was able to recruit several dynamic and impressive candidates, which it often had lacked in the past, and they helped the opposition hold its own in debates with the PAP during the short campaign period. And the government’s decision to call a new election, even though it was not legally obligated to do so until next year, might have backfired, making some Singaporeans angry that they had to vote in the midst of the pandemic.
In the wake of this election, the PAP will need to regroup. It did so successfully after it took a hit in the 2011 general election, and it is nothing if not durable.