Why Singapore's election matters, even if it's predictable

Singapore's general election Friday was widely expected to keep its leading political party in power. So why did more than 2 million voters still come out?

(Edgar Su/Reuters)
People's Action Party (PAP) supporters cheer as they wait for polling results at a stadium in Singapore on Friday. Singapore's ruling (PAP) looked to be making a strong showing in an election, according to samples of votes taken in more than two dozen constituencies and released by the Elections Department.

Singaporeans headed to the polls Friday to vote in a general election that was already largely decided.

Preliminary sample counts of 100 ballots showed that the People’s Action Party was set for reelection, continuing its control as Singapore’s leading political party since the country’s independence in 1965. Out of 89 parliament seats, the count indicated the PAP would be taking 83, according to the Elections Department.

Yet more than 2.1 million Singaporeans had cast their votes at 830 polling stations by early Friday evening, the country’s elections department said.

Voter turnout was almost unprecedented, with people coming out in every district for the first time since independence, according to Bloomberg.

Why was this election still so important?

This season marked the biggest threat to the PAP since Singapore’s first premier Lee Kuan Yew founded the party more than 50 years ago, reports The Wall Street Journal.

For the first time, the PAP faced a contest in every single district, and some say this election marked a fair chance for Singaporeans to assess the government. 

“Many political analysts agree that the party’s hold on power is softening as economic growth slows – the economy grew 1.8 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, the weakest level in nearly three years – and opposition groups gain clout,” reports the Journal. “The government has downgraded its growth forecast to 2 percent to 2.5 percent this year, from an earlier prediction of 2 percent to 4 percent.”

“It’s been exciting as there is better quality opposition, which means better rallies and debates,” Alvin Foo, a 26-year-old logistics operation worker, told Bloomberg at a PAP gathering at Toa Payoh stadium. “I just started work so I’m very concerned about the cost of living. I want a stable government, smart people to lead with a proven track record.”

Mr. Foo wasn’t alone in his convictions. “Election results have been subtly changing over the past few decades, showing the PAP’s gradual decline in popularity,” wrote Quartz. “The party – once synonymous with the Singapore economic miracle and miracle-worker-in-chief Lee Kuan Yew – is likely to continue to struggle amid gripes over issues as widespread as immigration (paywall) and pensions.”

While the opposition was able to reach new levels of visibility and credibility, the Elections Department has now called the election, with PAP in the lead. The party, led today by Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, won a majority of parliament seats, albeit far fewer than projections had suggested.

Based on votes counted so far, the Elections Department said the PAP has won 70 out of 89 seats, reported Bloomberg. The Workers’ Party – also widely seen as “the nation’s most successful opposition party” – captured one seat.

Among the eight opposition parties contesting the election, only the Workers’ Party had a presence in the previous parliament, winning six seats in 2011 and one more in a by-election in 2013, according to the Journal.

As results were announced showing that his party had won his own district, Prime Minister Lee was lifted on the shoulders of supporters and carried around the stadium to a chanting crowd. “We’re very grateful, very happy but at the same time humbled by the results,” he said. “We look forward to working with you closely. SG-100 will be better than SG-50.”

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