An election in the time of the virus
By Bertha Henson
ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE
I guess the powers-that-be aren’t superstitious people — or they wouldn’t have picked Friday the 13th to release that long-anticipated Electoral Boundaries Committee Review report. Maybe “long-anticipated’’ is the wrong word. Anticipation was breathless late last year when the rumour mill suggested a September and then a December general election. Then the coronavirus paid Singapore a visit and for many, the idea of an election receded to the back of the mind. After all, the April 2021 deadline is far away.
You can now hear the cries of the opposition, criticising the government for wanting an election during a health crisis. The word “irresponsible’’ popped up in statements by the Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People's Party and SingFirst. The Workers’ Party didn’t talk about the timing but complained that its regular stomping grounds have been subsumed into GRCs.
And it’s likely that some people will feel the same way too. Why divert public attention from a pandemic? Shouldn’t government leaders be watching how the virus spreads? Come up with new strategies to contain or mitigate its effects? And what’s this about an election which seems to run counter to its strictures on avoiding mass gatherings? Will this be an online election?
But that isn’t how I would see this move.
First, the EBRC report’s release doesn’t mean Parliament will be dissolved tomorrow or even next week. The longest interval was two months.
Second, some backend work hasn’t been settled yet, like letting people inspect the Register of Electors, which was last certified almost a year ago in April. This is a rare occasion when the EBRC report is released before the register is certified. The one time it happened was in 2001 — when both the certification and the boundaries report were made public at the same time.
But the register has to be inspected and certified, or a very large number of people would not be voting. I am talking about those who became new citizens or who turned 21 after April last year.
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In fact, I am a little puzzled at the rush to release the report. New polling districts were only gazetted the day before. The EBRC report, which looks chiefly at voter numbers, is based on the April register, but the updated register takes in every citizen above 21 before March 1 this year.
And since the inspection only closes on March 27, it looks like a second-quarter election.
Methinks it’s a brilliant move to call an election in times of crisis, even a health crisis. It’s a strategy known as “retreat to safety’’, in which the population decides not to risk upsetting the status quo. It isn’t just a health crisis, but an economic one too. With such a double whammy, would the electorate want to chance an opposition party holding the reins of Government? Even if the aspiration was for just a few opposition voices in Parliament, you can expect the PAP to warn of a freak election as there is no guarantee that the voting public would be so astute as to read each other’s minds.
Think back to GE2001, which was held in November, a couple of months after the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers. The deadline was actually in August 2002. The PAP won by a 75.3 per cent margin, the likes of which it has not seen since.
I suppose enough hints were dropped over the month. The whopping $4 billion package announced in the Budget statement was totally unexpected. What’s more, we’re told just a few days ago that another stimulus package was being planned, and the president’s assent for the reserves will be sought if need be. The holding of an election is not negotiable; die, die must hold by April next year as expressed in the Constitution. And given that the Covid-19 situation is likely to linger till at least the year’s end, some moves must be made soon.
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Of course, we can argue until the cows come home about whether it is too soon. Then again, remember that this is just the boundary report, not the issuance of the writ of election.
As for the opposition’s complaint about how campaigning will be affected, that depends again on whether elections are called when the virus outbreak is tapering off or at a new level of community transmission. Election rallies have always been the key campaign platform of opposition parties and it’s no surprise that they would be concerned if such rallies are banned because of the virus. You can expect snarky remarks about how the PAP would probably be glad to have this situation, since its own rallies aren’t exactly packed with people.
Putting aside the popularity stakes, the PAP does have a massive plate of offerings this time. The general election could be couched as a mandate for the PAP’s plans to help the economy and save jobs, and an endorsement that it was doing well in containing the crisis (cue all the foreign/ international accolades). It’s a fair bet that a lot of people have been watching how the 4G leaders dealt with this outbreak compared to the ministers who helmed the battle against Sars in 2003. And it’s fair to say that they’ve done well.
If the virus hadn’t paid us a visit, what would the general election have been about? Would we be scrapping over the need for more checks and balances in Parliament? Denying the PAP the two-thirds majority in Parliament needed to make constitutional changes? The influx of foreign workers (which has been cut, by the way)? Changes to the CPF system? These are evergreen issues and can be displaced quite easily with the more immediate concern: Will I be able to keep my job? And who is best able to help me do so.
In such a situation, the incumbent will always have all the cards, especially on economic matters. Opposition parties tend to contest more on a platform of values and ideals, because they have no track record of technical competence and economic expertise to show off.
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What is more problematic for the PAP is trying to get people to understand that the show must go on even in the midst of the outbreak. I doubt that government leaders would say that we should postpone the election until the outbreak is over – since it might well be outside the constitutional limit. And there are examples elsewhere of how elections are still held, but with more precautions taken.
But people might well be too spooked by the virus to join a polling queue, or think that the Government messaging about the virus is more politically partisan than nationally neutral. It is for the G to dispel such thinking, as well as come up with plans to ensure that the polls can be held safely, and include citizens who might be serving a Stay-at-Home notice on Polling Day.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has set the tone: "We need to respect our Constitution and make sure that election rules are properly followed.
"But if there's a need for us to adopt measures to achieve the same objective, then we'll have to look at the appropriate measures that will allow our people to express their views, cast their votes."
So maybe we’ll be turning up at polling stations at set timings, masked and with IC in hand. And cool heads, of course.