Early elections would reveal PAP’s lack of self-confidence in future performance

lee-hsien-loong-prime-minister-singaporeBy Carlton Tan

When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested in a radio interview that, unlike a pregnancy, there is no way to predict when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) will call the next General Election (GE), he was essentially giving Singaporeans a mischievous wink. With the power to call the GE when it’s at its strongest and the opposition is at its weakest, the PAP can maximise its chances of remaining in power.

At the same time, an early election paradoxically signals a lack of self-confidence that the PAP will continue to perform well. I would therefore not be so optimistic if I were Mr Lee, since calling an early election could very well have the opposite effect.

As the Professor of Politics at Yale University, Alastair Smith, explains in his book, Election Timing, “The timing of elections reveals information about how well incumbents expect to perform in the future… Competent governments wait longer before calling elections.”

Upon seeing an early election, voters should therefore “infer that the incumbent doubts her ability to continue producing good outcomes in the future.” Consequently, “leaders that call early elections should expect to see their support decline.”

“The early election is a signal that leaders do not expect conditions to be as rosy in the future. In anticipation of this upcoming decline, the electorate re-evaluate their assessment of the government’s record,” wrote Smith.

British Prime Minister David Cameron with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2009. Photo: AFP
British Prime Minister David Cameron with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2009. Photo: AFP

In the United Kingdom (which now has fixed-term elections, following electoral reform in 2011) this was exactly what happened to Harold Wilson in 1970. He had called a snap election to take advantage of his party’s sudden recovery, as indicated in opinion polls, but support slumped and his Labour Party was defeated by the opposition Conservative Party.

A similar thing occurred in France to the right wing President Jacque Chirac in 1997. Rather than win the early election as the polls had anticipated, Chirac lost the legislative election.

But unlike in Britain and in France, Singapore’s opposition will still face significant disadvantages if an early election is called.

The Workers’ Party (WP), the opposition party with the most seats in Parliament (7 out of 87), is in the midst of a thorough internal audit of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), insisted on by the PAP. The court case by the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the withholding of 2 years of Government grants from AHPETC also continue to strain the WP’s limited resources.

Hence, the power to determine the time and the conditions of one of Singapore’s most important elections in history will be highly significant.

Coming in the wake of the death of the PAP’s founding Secretary-General Lee Kuan Yew, and at a time when the PAP’s core ideologies face its greatest challenge from young, internet-savvy, voters, this will indeed be an important GE.

It will be closely followed by international observers and it will send a clear signal, either to the ruling party or the opposition of what Singaporeans want (assuming the elections are free and fair, and thus representative of the popular will).

Thus, when the GE is called will magnify will determine how prepared the opposition is and what issues are debated.

So far, the evidence suggests that the PAP has done well in the areas that Singaporeans traditionally deem important.

Elvin Ong and Mou Hui Tim identify the following three issues as the most important in GE 2011: unequal economic development, public transport problems, public security issues.

Blackbox Research, a Singapore-based research firm, believes the PAP is now in its best position to win elections since 2011. Its research shows that the PAP has done well in the three aforementioned areas.

Government Satisfaction Index by Blackbox Research
Government Satisfaction Index by Blackbox Research

According to Blackbox’s Government Satisfaction Index, Singaporeans are 8 points more satisfied (out of a 100 point index) with the Government now than they were a year ago. This is the result of strong gains, by 13 or 14 points each, in the following categories: “level of salaries and wages”, “cost of living”, “gaps between rich and poor”, “jobs and unemployment”, and surprisingly, “government accountability”. In contrast, public transport, a key issue, has only improved by six points.

However, Blackbox’s conclusion that “there has not been a better time for the PAP to begin planning for an early election”, is ultimately premised on a poll which measures whether Singaporeans think the PAP will receive strong voter support. This poll does not directly measure how likely Singaporeans are to vote for the PAP, only what Singaporeans think of how others might vote.

Blackbox’s conclusion also ignores the paradoxical effect explained above – that by calling an early election, the PAP signals its lack of faith in its own ability to continue performing well in the future. (This effect may be outweighed by the WP’s temporary weakness.)

There is also another way to look at this. Professor of Applied Methods & Comparative Politics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Mark A. Kayser, believes that governments tend to time their elections to coincide with strong economic performance. He writes in his research paper, Trade and the Timing of Elections:

“Economic expansions – or anticipated contractions – invite early elections in the majority of parliamentary democracies that permit them….

“Several studies confirm that governments time elections to coincide with the performance of their national economies….

“Once about half of their maximum terms have passed, governments, believing that economic performance affects the vote, time elections to capitalize on exceptional booms or pre-empt anticipated downturns.”

According to Prof. Kayser, this system has the advantage of discouraging undemocratic electoral tactics designed to give the incumbent a leg up. He writes:

“Governments that are able to co-ordinate elections with exogenous opportunities may have less of an incentive to manipulate their economies prior to elections.”

Workers' Party at Hougang, General Election 2011 (Image - Darren Soh, used with permission)
Workers’ Party at Hougang, General Election 2011 (Image – Darren Soh, used with permission)

However, this only holds true if governments are not paranoid (and thus will only do all that is necessary and not go overboard); and it only works on governments whose legitimacy will be hurt if they dole out goodies just before the elections.

Unfortunately, this may not hold true for the PAP as it is able to control the damage to its legitimacy when it blatantly engages in pork barrelling. In past elections, the PAP openly gave out goodies through the Budget. It has also openly issued threats that estate upgrading in opposition-held constituencies would be delayed and that property prices could fall compared to PAP-held constituencies.

So what will an early election mean?

One thing is for sure: the recent increase in the number of prosecutions against alleged violators of hate speech laws and the PAP’s active efforts to restrict the alternative media – evidenced in the shutting down of The Real Singapore and the legal action against The Online Citizen – represent a tightening of the political space.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was right when he told the audience at St Gallen that Singapore doesn’t practise democracy as defined in the West. We practice democracy as defined by the PAP. This is what an early election would mean.

The PAP’s a party that eschews ideology whilst sticking to its own. It’s a party that praises pragmatism whilst hiding its self-interest in the language of realism. It’s a party that purports to rise above the ugly politics of liberal democracy while it utilises the full range of tools it has to secure political gains.

It’s still Lee Kuan Yew’s party. Maybe that’s why it’ll win.

This article was first published in the Asian Correspondent.