Multi-cornered elections and voter choice

By Howard Lee

Illustrated by Terry Xu
Illustrated by Terry Xu

Much has been said about the multi-cornered fight in the Punggol East By-Election.

When the Singapore Democratic Party pulled out at the eleventh hour, they were praised much for doing so. Reform Party’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam, on the other hand, had it tough from the word ‘go’, when alleged death threats were sent to him and his family in a bid to force him to withdraw.

Most of these narratives revolve around how a multi-cornered fight will negatively affect the political parties involved. These views range from the smaller parties being teased about losing their election deposits, to angry accusations that they will most certainly cause the Workers’ Party to lose.

Scant attention has been paid to how multi-cornered electoral battles affect voters. And despite 66% of Punggol East residents who responded to TOC’s ground survey claiming preference for a two-way contest, I tend to believe that a multi-cornered fight does more good than harm for voters.

Straight fights: The myth of opposition unity

First, let’s examine how this apprehension for multi-cornered fights came about. I have written earlier that, since GE2006, our opposition parties have tried to avoid multi-cornered fights to prevent diluting votes for the opposition. Multi-cornered fights were seen as a sure way of giving the seat to the dominant People’s Action Party.

This tactic has been associated with a desire for opposition unity. The ‘horse-trading’ that goes on before elections was a way for parties to see beyond their ideological differences and band together against the PAP. In truth, this unity is not any form of lasting partnership, or even an act of camaraderie. Put bluntly, it is a political game of ‘chope’, a unique practice in Singapore politics that is seldom seen in the rest of the world.

Perhaps WP’s Low Thia Kiang and RP’s Jeyaretnam were correct in flagging out the problems of opposition unity in Singapore. Ideological differences prevent our opposition parties from coming together. What they did not bother to ask was, do the parties really want to?

Ideological difference between opposition parties is what gives them their unique identity. It gave the SDP its reputation as a far-left party, as much as lead to claims that the WP is “PAP-lite”. Party ideology is the fundamental way that voters identify with a party. A party loses votes because its ideology does not gel with voters, or because it does not have a clear ideology to begin with. Political ideology is also the base upon which government coalitions are formed.

Political ideology affects the policy position that a party takes, but it does not account for the complete range of proposals that it will make. This explains why BE2013 exhibited very little difference between the proposals made for municipal issues – all candidates have identified near identical problems that they wish to resolve on the ground, although the exact methods vary.

What is more interesting is their take on national and policy issues, and for this, Punggol East residents have the luxury of a multi-cornered fight from which to decide which party’s ideology suits them best.

A wider choice of national agendas

PAP’s Koh Poh Koon has conducted much of his campaign with minimal mention of national issues. He did mention a wish to “push for policies to help more individuals and families to stand on their own two feet”, but scant details thereafter on what exactly he finds of need to address this. Koh has maintained a mostly municipal focus, although his senior party colleagues have chipped in support by referring to recently rolled-out policies as evidence of how the PAP has improved since GE2011. This is a risky association, as voters who do not accept that the PAP’s new directions are significant, in any degree, would likely reject Koh. But if you believe that Koh can change the PAP from within, vote for him.

RP’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam has by far been the most vocal in taking the PAP to task on its policies. Ranging from CPF withdrawal, cost of public housing and quality of healthcare, to his continued questioning of our pledge to the International Monetary Fund, Jeyaretnam professed to be the “best qualified and most prepared to hold the government to account on national issues”. Jeyaretnam can also claim credit as possibly the first candidate who offered to share rally time with an opponent, citing his wish for “opposition solidarity”. Nevertheless, RP’s lack of presence in Parliament would make it tough for voters to judge his ability to command policy discussions. But if you believe that Jeyaretnam can deliver his promise of “no broken promises” and offer a “real alternative”, vote for him.

SDA’s Desmond Lim, by far the most seasoned candidate, can also claim credit to be the most innovative candidate of the BE, using a series of online rallies not just to reach out to voters, but also to answer queries from participants. Lim used these videos to tackle a range of national issues, from education and healthcare to property prices and transport. Lim lacks the poise and statesmanship in these rallies, and has also been criticised by readers for his lack of verbal clarity. SDA also has to contend with the shadow of their poor showing in GE2011, which can call into question the party’s relevance and feel for voter sentiment. But if you believe that Lim has “the people’s interest at heart” and that this is sufficient to overcome his and his party’s shortfalls, vote for him.

WP’s Lee Li Lian, despite being the youngest candidate in this election, proved to have a heart for the elderly. Her proposal to lift Medisave withdrawal restrictions for the elderly even drew a rebuttal from Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. Lee also professed to champion mandatory paternity leave, citing the government’s latest revisions to the Marriage and Parenthood package as a signal that the WP has been effective as a check on the PAP. This theme of negative reinforcement, used to measure the WP against the PAP, has been taken up with too much gusto by her party seniors, in response to the PAP’s stand that the WP has not contributed to the national debate. But if you feel the WP has done all it could for a First World Parliament, and believe Lee can contribute towards that vision, vote for her.

Fringe benefits

Four candidates, four different choices, some highlighting the lack in another’s campaign. If it had been a straight fight between PAP and WP, choosing who to vote might have been a relatively limiting task of either affirming the PAP mandate or enhancing the WP’s Parliamentary watchdog role.

In addition, I believe the presence of three opposition candidates voicing out on national issues has forced the PAP to move away from casting BE2013 as a local election, and to touch more on the  national agenda, limited in depth as that might be.

I also believed that, given the limited air-time for each candidate, we saw a deliberate avoidance of personal attacks. Instead, candidates were more focused on critiquing party agendas, which made for a healthier contest – indeed, one of the cleanest we have seen in decades.

What next, after the vote?

Come polling day, there will be only one victorious party, who will no doubt think the win gives them the mandate to do as their candidate has campaigned.

But that is a serious fallacy. A vote for a candidate is not an acknowledgement of perfection, sanctioning everything that he has promised or approved to the exclusion of alternatives. It is often a weighed decision, that a candidate has more proposals which the voter agrees with, rather than disagrees with.

If you are loyally committed to one party or candidate, and will vote for him/her whether you agree with all of his/her positions or not, that is your choice. If you are weighing every word and proposal made and feel that your preferred candidate is not perfect, while still the overall better option, you can still vote for him/her, for that is also your choice.

But having more candidates allows you to see the diversity of possibilities, and if there are nuggets of wisdom from the losers that you can push your elected representative to adopt, you have the right to do so.

And when you feel your elected representative has taken your vote for granted, make yourself heard, fight for the causes you believe in, vote him/her out the next round, or even stand and be counted.

For democracy is not just about the right to vote, but also the right to stand for election, be it a multi-cornered fight or not.