Singapore ruling party heads for poll win, opposition gains, based on early counts

Martin Abbugao and Catherine Lai, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jul 11 2020 02:51 AM

Singapore's long-ruling party is on course to retain power convincingly, but the opposition has made gains in an election held under the shadow of a coronavirus outbreak, early tallies indicated Saturday.

Voters put on masks and gloves and had to observe physical distancing rules during an election held as the city-state emerges from a lengthy virus lockdown. 

The affluent financial hub has seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown the government pushed ahead with the poll.

The opposition had accused the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) of being irresponsible, but officials insist they did enough to ensure the 2.65 million eligible voters could cast their ballots safely.

A random sample of ballots from each constituency showed the PAP, which has ruled Singapore uninterrupted for six decades, winning 83 seats and the opposition Workers' Party with 10 seats. 

Final tallies were due later Saturday, and the results could be different.

But if confirmed, it would mean the opposition had gained four seats for their best ever election performance, significant progress against the long dominant PAP.

Support for the ruling party also looked to have fallen in several hard-fought districts, according to the tallies released by the elections department.

While they still look far from winning power, Workers' Party supporters nevertheless started celebrating in one of the party's strongholds, cheering and waving flags.

"We hope for a better five years, for the future of Singapore," one supporter, Manuel, told AFP.

- Long queues -

Earlier, long queues had formed outside polling stations due to the need to undergo virus checks, prompting election officials to extend voting by two hours.

Opposition groups reacted furiously, with the Singapore Democratic Party calling it "highly irregular", adding that some of their polling agents had to leave before voting ended.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in charge since 2004 but now likely heading for his final term as premier, has repeatedly called COVID-19 "the crisis of a generation" and sought to project his party as a force for stability.

The trading hub has been hit hard by the pandemic and is forecast to be heading for its worst recession since independence in 1965. 

But the opposition received a boost after they were joined by Premier Lee's estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang.

The sibling is locked in a long-running feud with the prime minister over the legacy of their father, Singapore's late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, and has become a member of the Progress Singapore Party, although he did not run for office himself.

"Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore," Lee Hsien Yang said in a Facebook post this week.

"It is not 'rocking the boat' but saving our boat from sinking."

His party was among a host of opposition groups taking on the PAP, and 93 parliamentary seats were contested.

- Power transfer -

The PAP, which oversaw Singapore's transformation into one of the world's wealthiest societies, enjoys solid support but has been accused of arrogance, gerrymandering and targeting its rivals.

During the campaign, several media outlets were hit with a controversial law against misinformation after carrying comments made by an opposition figure on the virus outbreak.

They were ordered to place warnings next to the comments, saying they contained false information.

Job security and the government's response to the pandemic have been key topics among voters.

After initially keeping the virus in check, Singapore saw major outbreaks in the foreign worker dorms. It has reported more than 45,000 infections, including 26 deaths, and is slowly emerging from a two-month lockdown.

The poll is also a step in a carefully orchestrated transition of power to a new generation of leaders, with the prime minister expected to hand over to a hand-picked successor at some point afterwards.