GE2020: PAP returns to power with 83 seats, but loses Sengkang and Aljunied GRCs in hard-fought Covid-19 election
SINGAPORE – Singaporeans returned the People’s Action Party to government, handing it 83 of the 93 seats, but there was a major upset in Sengkang GRC, which fell to the Workers’ Party, amid a stronger showing by the opposition.
In what was dubbed a crisis election, or the Covid-19 polls, the PAP won 61.24 per cent of the votes, a near 9-point swing from its 69.9 per cent share in the 2015 polls.
In all, the election, billed as the most significant since Singapore’s independence, given the backdrop of the pandemic, will see the opposition presence doubled to 10 elected MPs in the next Parliament, Singapore’s 14th, since 1965.
The fears of a wipe-out of the opposition, which the Workers’ Party and others had warned about, proved unfounded. Instead, the opposition turned in a strong showing, with the WP snagging its second GRC, as well as enjoying a near 10-point swing in its Aljunied GRC base, taking 60 per cent of the vote there, and holding on to its Hougang seat.
The WP’s plea to voters not to hand the ruling party a “blank cheque” to shape policy at will appeared to have swayed voters.
But the other opposition parties, including the fledgling Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which forced close fights in several seats, ended the night empty-handed.
The PAP had urged the 2.65 million voters registered for the polls to give its tried-and-trusted team a strong mandate to take the country through the crisis, securing their lives, jobs and future.
In the end, the widely expected “flight to safety” in a crisis, given the PAP’s track record of leading Singapore for over six decades, did not materialise.
Instead, the anxieties and pain felt on the ground as the economic impact from the pandemic crisis takes its toll, as well as a stronger slate and a more robust campaign from the opposition, appear to have shaped the outcome.
The PAP’s share of the vote was down significantly from its high score in 2015, which was a jubilee year for Singapore, and which also saw the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, which moved Singaporeans deeply, and contributed to the PAP securing a better result than most had anticipated then.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had acknowledged during the campaign, while voters might plump for the incumbents in a crisis, this was ” not the happiest of times”, with people hard hit by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, he thought it best to call an election now, while the outbreak was in a stable situation and given the uncertainties of what lies ahead, to allow the government to be formed to focus on tackling the pressing challenges arising from the crisis.
WP’s new chief scores
The WP pulled off the biggest upset, with its slate of mostly fresh faces in the newly carved out Sengkang GRC proving a surprise hit in this election. Its star candidate, Associate Professor Jamus Lim, an economics professor who performed well in a televised election debate, helped the party to secure 52.13 per cent of the vote against a PAP team led by labour chief Ng Chee Meng. Two ministers were felled in the process, Mr Ng and also senior minister of state Lam Pin Min.
For WP’s chief, Mr Pritam Singh, in his first outing at the helm, the strategy of fielding the party’s A team to secure its Aljunied GRC base paid off. The WP saw a swing of nearly 10 points to 59.93 per cent, up from the razor-thin margin of 50.95 per cent, or just 2,626 votes, in 2015.
The party also held on to its Hougang stronghold, with Mr Dennis Tan increasing the party’s share of the vote there to 61.19 per cent, up from 57.7 per cent in 2015.
The WP, which fielded 21 candidates this time, down from 28 in the last election, saw its share of vote rise to 50.49 per cent, up from 39.8 per cent in 2015.
The key battleground seats in the east and the west proved to be close calls, with the PAP holding on to both, winning East Coast GRC and West Coast GRC, but narrowly.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, whose last-minute tactical switch to East Coast GRC caught most by surprise, pulled in 53.41 per cent of the vote, down from the 60.7 per cent the party managed in 2015.
This was a tad down from the 54.8 per cent that the PAP secured in 2011, when a close contest left this as the lowest winning margin in a GRC for the party.
This time, it remained so, with some political watchers wondering if the WP team might have fared even better if it not been up against the DPM.
Over in the west, the keenly watched contest for West Coast GRC, proved to be a nail biter, with the PAP holding on to it, but narrowly, with 51.69 per cent of the vote.
The popular former PAP man, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, making a return to parliamentary elections after his retirement in 2006, this time on the ticket of his new Progress Singapore Party, failed to wrest the GRC, which includes the Ayer Rajah seat he once represented.
Two members from Dr Tan’s West Coast GRC team, however, will be offered seats in Parliament as Non-Constituency MPs, as the “best losers” of the 2020 General Election.
Singapore’s Constitution ensures that there are at least 12 opposition voices in Parliament to ensure a diversity of views however the votes fall. Since 10 opposition MPs got elected, the remaining two positions will be filled by those that lost most narrowly.
Dr Tan had earlier said during the campaign period that he would decline an NCMP seat if he was offered one, although other party members could take it up if they wished.
His fledgling party contested 24 seats, the largest fielded by the opposition, but failed to win a single one.
The Singapore Democratic Party’s secretary general, Dr Chee Soon Juan, who had previously contested the 2016 by-election in Bukit Batok SMC against the PAP’s Mr Murali Pillai, failed again in his sixth attempt at a seat in Parliament. The seat was held by the PAP’s Mr Murali with 54.8 per cent of the vote, down from 61.2 per cent in 2015.
In nearby Bukit Panjang, the SDP chairman Paul Tambyah lost to three-term PAP MP Liang Eng Hwa, who moved over to the ward for this election. Mr Liang held the seat with 53.74 per cent of the vote, down from the PAP’s share of 68.4 per cent in 2015.
The upshot of these polls results is that there could be two NCMPs in Singapore’s next Parliament, the country’s 14th since independence.
Amid the ongoing outbreak, voters had to cast their ballots wearing masks, after sanitising their hands, and while keeping a safe distance from others.
This caused some delays, which led to long queues forming at several polling stations. The Elections Department responded by setting up more registration and ballot-issuing points to speed things up, but ended up extending voting hours to 10pm.
This pushed the process of counting of the ballots back, prompting protests from the opposition camp, which complained that its election agents might not be available to monitor the process of ballot boxes being closed and transported to counting centres.
Some political watchers said that the queues could have caused some unhappiness, with some voters questioning the timing of the election during a pandemic.
The PAP had sought a strong mandate to tackle the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, arguing that with the virus continuing to surge around the world, ravaging economies, disrupting global supply chains, heightening geopolitical tensions, and opening rifts in society, Singapore needed a capable, experienced government with the full support of the people, to deal with the situation.
PAP leaders called for voters to signal a sense or purpose and unity through the vote, noting that foreign investors, as well as friends and foes of the Republic, would draw conclusions from the outcome about Singaporeans’ resolve and determination in the face of adversity, just as earlier generations had done in previous polls.
To counter the PAP’s call not just to be returned to office but for a strong mandate, opposition parties had made a concerted pitch urging voters not to hand the PAP a “blank cheque” to implement policies at will.
Some went further to press for an end to the PAP’s supermajority. By denying it one-third of the seats, they had sought to check its ability to make constitutional changes.
These views appeared to gain traction during the hustings, especially among some segments of the younger Internet generation, political observers noted.
But in the end, the majority of voters seemed to want to have both the PAP in charge, but with a strong opposition presence in the House to provide some checks and balances.
In the face of the worst crisis to hit Singapore in many decades, most voters plumbed for the party which has pulled Singapore through many a difficult moment in the past to take decisive charge, but without a blank cheque, as it shapes the country’s response to the challenges to come.
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