Elections: A question of timing

Elections: A question of timing
Prime Minister Lee meeting Singaporeans at an election rally in Boat Quay in May 2011.

With increasing signs that the next General Election will be held sooner rather than later, Insight examines possible windows for the polls and the pros and cons of each date.

How long does an election take to gestate?

This was the imponderable that listeners were left with after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's appearance earlier this week on Mandarin radio station Capital 95.8FM.

After he joked that the arrival of a GE cannot be known with certainty like the birth of a child, radio host Gao Yixin wondered when the baby would be conceived.

"It had already been conceived long ago," Mr Lee parried.

Analysing the Prime Minister's every remark, however banterous, to guess when the next General Election will be held, has become a national parlour game.

After all, the timing of an election is solely at the discretion of the Prime Minister, who has absolute say on when to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

PM Lee's departure from the style of his predecessors - who almost never picked the same month and time frame twice - has added another element to the guessing game.

The two GEs under his purview thus far, 2006 and 2011, unfolded like clockwork over near-identical time frames, from the release of new electoral boundaries at the end of February, to the dissolution of Parliament in the third week of April, to Polling Day on the first Saturday of May.

By this schedule, the GE should be held only in May 2016.

But this time around, will PM Lee abandon regularity in favour of political momentum?

Logic would suggest that the date of a GE should, by simple political calculation, coincide as much as possible with periods of support for the ruling party, of which the Prime Minister is secretary-general. And earlier this month, at the annual May Day Rally - traditionally an opportunity to emphasise the Government's agenda on workers and wages - Mr Lee delivered an unexpectedly electoral speech, declaring that the most important issue in the next GE would be leadership renewal.

'Noting that Singapore's success hinges on it being led by exceptional leaders, he pointed to the strong reaction of Singaporeans to the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March. They were reminded that it was exceptional leadership which brought the nation to where it is today, said PM Lee.

Indeed, Mr Lee's death and the strong reaction to it is a key factor in many observers' belief that a GE is now imminent.

"Elections this year would allow the Government to capitalise on the inextricable link between founder Lee Kuan Yew and the People's Action Party," said a report by research firm BMI last week.

Another research firm, Blackbox, said that its monthly survey of 1,000 Singaporeans aged 15 and above threw up a link between the death of Mr Lee and a 20 per cent drop in the number of Singaporeans "who think that the PAP's vote in the next GE will be lower than in 2011".

The ground seems sweet for the ruling party right now, Blackbox added, noting that its survey over the last year showed "steady improvement in community satisfaction" on hot-button issues like foreign worker inflows.

But would an early GE in 2015, coming after Mr Lee's death and coinciding with jubilee celebrations, play well with today's voters?

Insight examines three window periods when Singaporeans might head to the polling station.

1 September/October

THREE of the past 11 elections - in 1972, 1988 and 1991 - were held in August and September. The common denominator spurring their timing, of course, was the rousing, traditional appeal to nationhood, the end-August National Day Rally speech.

This year, the Prime Minister's annual address to the nation is likely to be on Aug 23. So, if the electoral levers are thrown into motion immediately after this year's rally, Singaporeans could be heading to the polls as soon as early September. Observers favour the September/October option simply because it is the nearest available window in sight to hold a GE.

The next few months are occupied with the SEA Games and then the jubilee National Day Parade. This makes a post-National Day Rally GE the earliest possible opportunity to leverage on the success of those events, and on the goodwill generated by policies introduced over the past few years, from MediShield Life to the Pioneer Generation Package, to measures to control housing prices and the inflow of foreign workers.

"Most of the ground issues have been addressed, so my sense is that the earlier the GE is, the better, because you can't tell what will happen next," says PAP MP Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

"September or October is logical because of the feel-good factor with the SEA Games and the SG50 celebrations," he adds.

The death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March will have a galvanising effect, says PAP MP Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

"Mr Lee's passing and the mourning period was an opportunity for all Singaporeans to gain a better perspective of the journey our leaders had taken to give us a comfortable Singapore," he says.

"Some took (Singapore's success) for granted, but Mr Lee's passing has helped galvanise the nation."

But several observers note the possibility that Singaporeans might be event-weary by then. Some voters might even be put off by a perceived attempt to extract electoral mileage from both the low of mourning and the high of jubilee-year celebrations.

"Let the people rest after all the hullaballoo," says political observer and opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam, referring to SG50 celebrations. "A high can cut both ways."

The short timeline would also fuel charges that the Opposition was not being given enough time to prepare for elections. The Workers' Party (WP) is in the midst of court proceedings brought by the Ministry of National Development in which the former is trying to prevent independent accountants from being installed in the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

It is also scrambling to make a June 30 deadline for the submission of an audited set of FY2013 accounts.

These WP activities come after the Auditor-General's findings of severe lapses in compliance and governance at the only Opposition-run town council in Singapore.

The Singapore Democratic Party seems the most prepared for GE; it launched its election slogan and GE plan in January.

But the rest of the Opposition scene is in flux. The National Solidarity Party (NSP) saw a leadership shake-up recently that had key members resign, while new parties like SingFirst - headed by former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say - and People's Power Party - headed by former NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng - have just sprung up. - RACHEL CHANG

Next page: Festive year-end

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