Singapore safe election rules strip opposition of crucial weapon

SINGAPORE — Coronavirus safety measures for Singapore’s upcoming general election will put the ruling party’s rivals at a disadvantage, opposition and human rights groups warned on Thursday, as the city-state announced its official campaign guidelines.

“Holding an election during the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen an election that is already not free,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of regional lawmakers, wrote in a report.

Singapore is gearing up for the election as it emerges from virus shutdown mode. More businesses and social facilities will be allowed to reopen this Friday, including retailers, dine-in restaurants and parks. Although the polling date has yet to be announced, various signals suggest it could be in the coming weeks, possibly in July.

The latest sign came on Thursday, with the Elections Department’s revelation of the ground rules for campaigning during the pandemic. Based on Phase Two of Singapore’s reopening plan, physical rallies will be banned, while walkabouts and door-to-door visits will be limited to groups of no more than five.

Campaigning in cars will be permissible, but candidates will not be allowed to broadcast live speeches, display a livestream or play music from the vehicles because doing so could draw a crowd. Instead, the government has pledged to reserve more time for television and radio broadcasts, while arranging venues for parties to livestream speeches online.

In the past, opposition parties have relied on in-person rallies to reach out to citizens and raise awareness of their lesser-known candidates. These rallies, usually held in the evening, have been known to attract thousands.

Tan Cheng Bock, secretary-general of the opposition Progress Singapore Party, held an online news conference before the Elections Department announcement but was already warning that the guidelines would favor the governing People’s Action Party.

Tan Cheng Bock, head of the Progress Singapore Party, appears in an online press conference on June 18. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

“All the opposition parties will be left a bit hanging because the methods of campaigning will be so changed and so different,” he said. “This would definitely affect our way of reaching [voters] down to the ground.”

The Progress party is a new player, formed last year by Tan — a PAP veteran and former presidential hopeful. The party is backed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, and announced its first batch of six candidates on Thursday.

The same day, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights published its report titled, “In Singapore, An Already Unfair Vote Undermined by COVID-19.”

The group stressed the opposition’s dependence on physical campaigning for fundraising, warning that these parties may have difficulty getting the word out.

“While the [government’s] Elections Department has said that voters will have access to the campaigning messages of all political parties, this is only meaningful if such access is done on an equal basis,” the report said. “Yet, PAP’s monopoly of mainstream media and support from grassroots organizations will certainly allow the ruling party easier access to voters.”

The report said complications due to COVID-19 are coupled with long-standing concerns about “pervasive structural restrictions” that “prevent the development of a viable electoral competition” in Singapore.

“Challenging regulations for the registration of candidates have also often led to a number of seats going automatically to PAP without a contested vote, while the brief campaigning time, coupled with the prime minister’s power to call for an election at short notice, also hinders the ability of opposition parties to prepare and campaign.”

The ASEAN parliamentarians also questioned the need to send voters to the polls right now, since the election deadline is still months away.

“There are no clear reasons for the government of Singapore to hold an election during the pandemic. It has until April 2021 to do so, raising concerns that the current pandemic might be used to put PAP at a further advantage.”

The PAP, in power since independence in 1965, won 83 of the 89 seats contested in the last election in September 2015. This time, 93 seats will be up for grabs. Voting is compulsory for Singaporeans aged 21 or older, and 2.6 million people are eligible.

Some rules and precautions had already been announced before Thursday. The number of polling stations will be increased to 1,100 from 880, to reduce density, while voters will be encouraged to cast ballots during allotted two-hour periods.

And with the pandemic pushing more campaigning online, a new rule requires paid election ads on social media and other websites to state who funded them.

In recent days, top ministers including Prime Minister Lee have been holding a series of broadcasts on the pandemic recovery, running from June 7 until this Saturday. Some observers see this as the PAP’s attempt to get a head start in the election race.

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