Singapore’s vote gives pause to ruling party

By Seth Mydans, New York Times, 8 May 2011

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Sunday that his People’s Action Party would re-examine its style of government after it was returned to power with its lowest percentage of the popular vote and its biggest loss of parliamentary seats since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

Most parties would be happy to win a 60 percent majority of the vote and 81 of 87 parliamentary seats. But for the People’s Action Party, which is known as the P.A.P. and has governed Singapore almost as a one-party state, the outcome appeared to be a signal that voters were seeking more accountability and responsiveness from their leaders. In the departing Parliament, the opposition holds only two seats.

The results from the election on Saturday raised the possibility of a more active, if still tiny, opposition and of greater give-and-take over issues that have traditionally been decided by a closed inner core of the governing party.

“This election marks a distinct shift in our political landscape which all of us must adjust to,” Mr. Lee said in a televised news conference after the votes were counted. “While the voters have given the P.A.P. a strong mandate, many voters, including some of those who voted for us, clearly expressed their significant concerns both on the issues and our approach to government.”

He added: “Many Singaporeans wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. We hear your voice. The P.A.P. will learn from this election and put right what is wrong.”

The vote came after an unusually boisterous campaign in which, for the first time, opposition parties were contesting all but one constituency. They drew enthusiastic crowds, with many people energized by newly legalized Internet campaigning that brought a clamor of voices and points of view rarely heard in the tightly controlled city-state.

The People’s Action Party has been in power since independence, and until 1981 there were no opposition members of Parliament. Until now, there had never been more than four opposition members.

The party’s popular vote, 60 percent, represented a steep decline from the previous two elections, down from 67 percent in 2006 and 75 percent in 2001.

The larger significance lies with the fact that the P.A.P.’s political dominance is slowly being chipped away,” said Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University. “There is a consciousness among Singaporeans that the one-party-dominance system is not sustainable in the long run.”

The vote also reflected the views of a younger generation, confident of its nation’s stability and economic security, that may be seeking what Mr. Tan called “a type of more normal democracy.”

For younger Singaporeans born after 1965, the Singapore success story of moving from third world to first world in one generation actually has very little traction,” he said. “To them the P.A.P. performance is not what they have done the last 30 or 40 years, but about what it has done in the last five years.”

The founder and architect of Singapore’s success, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was re-elected to Parliament, at the age of 87, in the only uncontested constituency.

Mr. Lee, who holds a cabinet post with the title of minister mentor and is the prime minister’s father, transformed a quiet colonial port into a center of trade and investment that is one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing nations in Asia.

Among the issues that confronted the governing party were voters’ discontent over rising prices, particularly in housing, and a widening income gap that is leaving behind some of those who are less well-off. Many Singaporeans complain about an influx of foreign workers, who now make up one-third of the population of five million.

Political analysts said that election results presented challenges to both sides and that their responses would determine the future shape of power and politics in Singapore.

“The challenge of this for the P.A.P. is whether they are prepared to recognize that enough voters seem to have expressed interest in the idea of checks and balances and political competition, not just with the P.A.P. and P.A.P.-controlled institutions, but against the P.A.P.,” said Garry Rodan, an expert on Singapore at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

He said that the opposition parties would be faced with a lack of resources and with legislation that makes it difficult for civil society to connect to political parties and to mobilize as they do in liberal democracies.

The six opposition seats were won by the Workers’ Party, one of six parties that ran against the governing party. In a significant upset, a five-member Workers’ Party slate won a group-candidate constituency over a governing party slate that included two cabinet ministers. One other member of the Workers’ Party was elected in a single-candidate constituency.

In a victory speech, the head of the Workers’ Party, Low Thia Khiang, said, “Your votes tell the government you want a more responsive, inclusive, transparent and accountable government.”

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