The premise of having an election in a democratic country is to give voters a fair choice. For that choice to be fair, voters have to have the ability to make an informed choice. The factors that would ensure an informed choice would include the voters to have equal access to all contestants from all contesting parties and their message.
For all contestants to be able to reach out to voters adequately, each contesting party will need to be given sufficient time to campaign. No one party should have more lead time than the other. In the Singaporean context, is this the case?
We have been dominated by a single party, the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) for over 50 years. Given that election dates are decided by the PAP, do we have checks and balances to ensure that they do not have an advantageous lead time? This question once again came to mind when I read Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s (PM Lee) reply to Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait. When asked by Micklethwait if general elections in Singapore could be brought forward, PM Lee said: “It’s always possible… “There are many reasons to bring elections forward or not, so we’ll see.”
This is a very vague answer. What are the “many reasons”? Does it mean that the PAP will have the advantage of being able to call an election at a time where they judge is most politically favourable to them? If so, does this provide equal opportunity to all political contestants? Secondly and more importantly, will this deprive voters of having enough time to make their choices on an informed basis?
In the case of General Election 2015, the opposition did not have the slightest idea when the election would be called. Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Lina Chiam was scheduled to attend an ASEAN parliamentarian meeting during the dates of the GE with other PAP MPs. When contacted by TOC about the election date, she was convinced that the election would not be held on those dates. It is pretty sure that the PAP MPs who were scheduled to go with her, would not be kept in the dark in such a manner.
Currently, the steps to calling an election are as follows:
- A writ of election has to be issued which specifies the date on which candidates are nominated which is between five days to one month from the date of the writ.
- After nomination day, a notice of contested election will be issued by the Returning Officer stating the date of the poll (which can be anywhere between 10 to 56 days from the date of the notice).
This would mean that an election can be called within a space of 2 weeks.
Based on the past three elections, we can see that the PAP government pushes the days of campaigning to its minimum so as to secure its leverage as the incumbent.
|Election Year||Nomination||Till Polling day|
|2006||7 days||9 days|
|2011||8 days||10 days*|
|2015||5 days||10 days*|
*inclusive of the cooling-off day
How does this give opposition parties enough time to reach out to voters?
Other than the announcement of when the election would be held, the other factor is the announcement of the constituency boundaries by the Election Department. Without a certainty of whether SMCs will be adsorbed into GRCs as in the Joo Chiat’s case, blocks from opposition wards into PAP wards and vice-versa, opposition parties do not have the confidence to go on their walkabouts. The Election Department is under the Prime Minister Office, meaning all changes are under the knowledge of the PM and his party.
The PAP being the party in power will, therefore, have a significant advantage from these standpoints. Being entrenched, they would already be familiar with the voters and their demographics. In this manner, the opposition parties will forever be playing catch up with lesser resources and knowledge.
I appreciate that the incumbent party will always have an advantage. But should the advantage gap be so wide? Does PM Lee see absolutely no issue with this? Perhaps he feels it is the PAP’s entitlement to call the shots. He did use that word when describing the possibility or lack thereof to describe the political possibilities of his children when he said “Not sure any of them have shown any interest in coming to politics. They are entitled to, but I don’t think it’s likely they feel the same compulsion that I did – duty that I do. They have their own responsibilities, their careers. I’m sure they’ll make contributions in their own ways.”But it would be unkind of me to add more burden on them. It’s difficult enough for them as it is to carry my name.”