Govt should “exercise restraint” in deploying “institutional prerogatives” when wanting to call for early general elections, says Prof Donald Low

Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Prof Donald Low commented that the ruling government should “exercise restraint” in deploying its institutional prerogatives when it comes to their motives to call for the general elections to be held early.

“In the words of Ziblatt and Levitsky in ‘How Democracies Die’, the PAP didn’t exercise (enough) forbearance, the idea that people in power should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives,” Prof Donald Low noted.

Prof Donald Low took to his Facebook on Sunday (29 March) to share his opinion on why the government wanted to hold an early election.

He remarked, “People Action Party (PAP) has never hesitated to use the full extent of discretion that the law gives the elected government to maximise its already significant electoral advantages. This applies not just to when elections are held.”

Pointing out that the practices in general elections “obviously have the effects of conferring an advantage on the incumbent”, he said the introduction of Group Representation Constituency (GRC), campaigning period in general elections and period between the announcement of constituency boundaries, and the dissolution of Parliament are entirely legal and “maybe even justifiable on grounds that have nothing to do with giving the PAP an advantage”.

Speaking about public opposition to an early general elections amid the coronavirus crisis, Prof Low noted that the government must have solutions for that.

“Rather, I think it has everything to do with people’s perception that this is a party that is not shy of using whatever (legal) tool at its disposal to maximise its advantage at elections. But just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should,” he said in his post.

Prof Low also refuted that Singapore had inherited the parliament democracy system from the Westminster, which gives full discretion to the prime minister to call for elections.

Instead, the parliament of the United Kingdom has removed the prime minister’s power to call an early election and set a default election date for a general election to the Westminster parliament, he pointed out.

He added, “The Act also sets out two routes for calling an early general election: two-thirds of MPs vote for an early general election; or the House of Commons votes no confidence in the government and fails to pass a motion of confidence in government in 14 days.”

Hence, Prof Low suggested PAP to refer to the Westminster parliament in securing their legitimacy – not just legality to call for elections in next month, which is “better than Han Fook Kwang’s one-off solution”.

In other words, after this election, an electoral reform will be committed as well to enhance the fairness of elections including a limit on the discretion of the prime minister to call an early election, he asserted.

“Having a default date for the next GE doesn’t remove the possibility of an early election altogether; the party in government simply has to persuade two thirds of MPs to agree to it.”

“If the PAP is willing to handcuff itself a little (mind you, the handcuff proposed here is a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which surely isn’t too much a burden for the PAP to bear), to show that it’s concerned about electoral fairness, and that it will exercise some forbearance and restraint, it will lend credence to its arguments that a GE soon is in the public interest,” he concluded.

What other parties say about the government’s move to call for an early General Elections?

The Secretary General of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock said that whether to hold an early election or delay the elections is an obvious choice, which either cause a far worse health crisis or face a possible constitutional problem.

“We are now talking about life and death. Real lives are at stake. We must put all our energies and resources to fight COVID-19. The GE can wait.” said Dr Tan, in response to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean’s speech in Parliament last Wednesday (25 March) where he stated that it is unconstitutional to delay elections in the absence of a state of emergency.

According to the advice of Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), Mr Teo said that to delay an election beyond the required date “with the creation of a caretaker government formed by the President” is “unconstitutional,” unless when a state of emergency is declared.

Mr Teo also noted in the Parliament that no legal basis or practical need exists to necessitate the formation of a caretaker government created by the President even in a state of emergency if the incumbent Cabinet remains in office.

Meanwhile other opposition parties also voiced out that the Government should hold off calling the next general elections amid COVID-19 outbreak while giving priority to curb the spread of outbreak and protecting health and safety of the public.

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