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Worsening economic conditions not a handicap for the PAP in an election.

Why an election in September is most likely

Jason Lee

In recent weeks, a hot topic that is buzzing at coffee shops and online forums is whether a general election (GE) will be held soon?

In my view, the answer is a clear cut YES. The next question is: When?

While some have argued that the ruling People’s Action Party is likely to call a GE as early as March 2009, I do not think an election will be held within the next six months – primarily because of three key factors.

Off-Budget measures: Need to use current reserves for new initiatives

For one, the PAP government certainly knows it has to introduce off-Budget measures later this year to help Singaporeans and businesses cope with the economic downturn. With the US economy expected to worsen in the next few months, the PAP’s $20.5 billion Budget would have to be enhanced with more ‘sweetening’ initiatives that would be felt directly by the ordinary man-in-the-street.

Besides the political need to offer such ‘sweets’ to the electorate before asking for their ballots, one noteworthy factor is such that if the PAP calls for an election before introducing off-Budget measures, all the reserves accumulated by the government up to the election date would be locked up and treated as past reserves. Hence it means the new government would have nothing in its ‘reserves chest’ to pay for any new schemes which would be introduced to help Singaporeans cope with the recession.

Of course the PAP can always seek the President’s permission to dip into past reserves again, but would it want to do so and raise controversies and debates for the second time in less than a year?

National Day Rally: ‘Uniting’ the nation

What better opportunity to ‘unite’ the nation and ask for their support (read: mandate) than the annual National Day Rally? Yes, I believe it is highly possible that the Prime Minister would utilise this year’s NDR – which I reckon would be scheduled on 16 August – to rally the nation. Beyond such talk of how unity is crucial during difficult times, I would of course expect more ‘carrots’ to be dangled in front of the nation – with a possible objective of ‘sweetening’ the ground which is likely to have soured significantly by that time.

APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting (14-15 November 2009)

Taking into consideration the above factors, it means the GE is likely to be held after mid-August.

But I would also rule out the fourth quarter of the year because of the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting (AELM) which would be held from 14-15 November.

That means the possible window for an election starts in mid-August and ends around mid-October (on the assumption that the Singapore authorities require a month for their logistical preparations for the AELM).

12 September 2009?

Traditionally, most GEs were held during school holidays, for the convenience factor since many schools were used as polling stations – even though the last GE on May 6, 2006 did not take place during the school holidays.

This time round, I am expecting Polling Day to be scheduled during the school holidays in September: 12 September 2009, Saturday, to be exact.

One key factor behind my humble guess is that the ruling party’s candidates can ‘leverage’ on the National Day Rally (read: goodies and carrots offered to Singaporeans) to boost their support levels – especially during campaigning.

That Singapore would host the upcoming AELM is also likely to be a political tool – as the ruling elite can ‘solicit’ for more votes by urging the electorate to demonstrate to the world that Singapore has a stable government backed by the people’s ‘mandate’– a ‘pre-requisite’ which would enhance “investors’ confidence in Singapore”.

While I personally do not believe that Ms Ho Ching would embark on a political career, it is interesting to note that she would step down as CEO of Temasek Holdings on October 1. Wouldn’t an election date in September provide good timing if she indeed makes a transition from the corporate world to the political arena?

Other factors deemed less significant: Lack of new faces and worsening economic conditions

The lack of new faces on the ground should count for little when we ponder over whether a GE would be held this year. Since when has ground experience been a pre-requisite for the PAP when it fields new candidates? Yes, there had been cases of some Young PAP members who were fielded as candidates but are we sure all the new candidates in the last election had worked the ground for a significant period before they were introduced as new candidates?

Since our electoral system is based largely on the GRC concept, does it matter whether a new candidate works hard at the ground level before he is fielded? Just send him or her into a GRC (which is always the case anyway) – ideally anchored by a heavyweight minister – and we would all agree that his lack of experience at the constituency level is no obstacle to his political career and aspirations!

Another key factor that has been debated is whether the PAP is willing to take a risk and wait for another few months before calling for a snap poll. The argument goes along the line that should the economy worsen in the next few months, the PAP could lose more votes than if the elections were to be held today.

However, I would argue that worsening economic conditions (read: more retrenchments) are not necessarily a handicap for the PAP. It could in fact be an 'ace card' for the ruling regime.

Look around us today – the queues at shopping malls, the crowds at travel fairs and car road shows etc. I reckon it is reasonable to state that the full impact of the global crisis has not been felt by many Singaporeans on an individual basis. This is perhaps understandable since many of us still hold a job. Nevertheless, economists and political leaders have already warned of tougher times (read: more retrenchments, possibilities of pay cuts) in the next few months ahead. Hence, the PAP’s likely message during campaigning – that it is THE party to lead Singapore to recovery – would certainly sound more ‘persuasive’ in the later part of the year (as compared to now).

Considering that the elections need not be held until February 2012, such speculation of a snap poll seems a little premature. However, in view of the above factors, I am placing my bet on September 12, 2009 as the date Singaporeans elect their next government. Any takers?

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Picture from wantunn

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