Elections in the time of COVID-19 – Are the odds only in PAP’s favour?

COVID-19 continues to hammer the lives of people and economies globally, yet in Singapore, it seems it is no longer the talk of the town. Instead, the excitement and media hype is all about the General Election (GE) which will be held on 10 July 2020.

Despite criticisms that holding an election in the middle of a pandemic is reckless and opportunistic, the People’s Action Party (PAP) held their ground by presenting reasons as to why it should be held sooner than later. Two reasons stood out; 1) this pandemic has the potential of prolonging which may result in Singapore missing the deadline of holding a GE by April 2021, and 2) once elected, the new government can then focus on dealing with the pandemic and its impact.

The ruling party felt that as long as new rules are in place to ensure safe distancing and small group gatherings, currently limited to five, and provisions made for online campaigning such as e-rallies and broadcasts, there is no reason to delay GE.

These reasons and new measures notwithstanding, and regardless of where a voter stands along the spectrum between agreement and disagreement, one thing is very clear – this is not going to be a fair election for the alternative parties.

It is true that a pandemic GE during this period is not unexpected, even amongst the alternative parties. They have begun preparations as early as the end of 2018. Walkabouts were conducted, volunteers recruited, and discussions were held to avoid three-cornered fights. We also saw the formation of two new parties, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Red Dot United (RDU), with the latter successfully registered just a week before Parliament was dissolved.

All of them however will face serious challenges during GE2020 that warrant concern from anyone hoping for fair elections. This is because even in the absence of extraneous events caused by COVID-19, the odds are already stacked against the alternative parties in several ways.

Challenge #1 – The media

The first thing that the alternative parties come up against is the lack of independent mass media companies that cater to the mainstream. In any well-functioning democracy, freedom of press allows the media to be critical about current day government and policies without running afoul of the law.

In Singapore, a controlled media and lack of press freedom ensures that critics of the ruling party, including members of the alternative parties, receive disproportionately less coverage for their views, what they are doing for Singaporeans, except for developments that put them in an unfavourable light.

In contrast, members of PAP are readily and frequently featured in print and audio visual media on a daily basis.

Thus where visibility through the media is concerned, the alternative parties are at a disadvantage. Therefore, public rallies, walkabouts, and door-to-door visits are crucial opportunities for members of the public to meet and interact with the alternative party politicians and hear from them directly.

Given the fact that rallies held by the alternative parties have always generated larger crowds than the ones held by the PAP, it is proof that Singaporeans yearn to interact and hear from the alternative parties.

Challenge #2 – Changing boundaries

Electoral boundaries are drawn up by the Elections Department (ELD), an office under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), when a General Election is due.

In the history of Singapore electoral politics, boundaries change and constituencies sometimes cease to exist after one or a few General Elections.

Being the party that forms the government, together with constant visibility through the media and aided by the grassroots volunteers from the People’s Association, the constituents are constantly being familiarised with ruling party members. This gives the PAP the advantage when fielding new candidates in any constituency.

The reality is different for the alternative parties, especially for non-Parliamentary candidates in the alternative parties. Due to this, the alternative parties have to work much harder to create familiarity and trust in the constituencies they plan to campaign in. With the re-drawing of boundaries from one GE to another, the efforts of non-PAP parties to establish a presence become self-defeating, they almost have to start all over again during the brief period between announcement of electoral boundaries and polling day.

With this being a challenge at every election, given additional COVID-19 restrictions of having no more than five people gathering in a group creates complications when it comes to effectively conducting walkabouts and door-to-door visits. In fact, PSP recently received a warning for allegedly breaching that rule.

Challenge #3 – Laws limiting political advertisements

Political advertising forms a crucial part of electoral campaigning in any functioning democracies around the world. Such advertisements are allowed to be placed across any medium including television, social media, and periodicals.

In Singapore, laws have been enacted to limit advertising options not just during an election but on any given day. It may be argued that the PAP doesn’t need such access because as mentioned above, its members are regularly feature in the mainstream media. The reality is vastly different for alternative parties.

As online platforms became increasingly used by the alternative parties and cause-based organisations in promoting their work, laws have been passed to regulate what gets posted on these platforms.

The passing of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in 2019 brought about a great deal of uncertainty where public expression of opinions is concerned. Since its enactment, it has been used on the incumbent’s critics such as some members of the alternative parties, human rights activists, and The Online Citizen.

It does not appear to have affected the pro-establishment activists like Fabrications Against PAP (FAP) who regularly attacks and posts sensationalized falsehoods about critics of the incumbent party, including extracting personal photographs of these critics from social media accounts and reposting these with misrepresented captions.

POFMA has its implications on online advertising. From December 2019, political parties in Singapore can no longer purchase advertising from tech giant Google. The company’s decision to update its policies, specific to Singapore, came shortly after the passing of POFMA. As online platforms have always played a major part in aiding the alternative parties’ visibility, Google’s decision in response to the passing of POFMA came as a blow to many in the alternative parties.

Traditionally, the Films Act of 1981 prohibits the making of any party political film, with exception to films “made, distributed or exhibited by or under the direction and control of the Government”. Under the Act, a party political film is defined as one that is “an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body”.

The Act also assumes that such films are “made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore”. As a result, any film that is considered political in nature has been banned, or heavily censored.

In addition to the Films Act, Section 22(1) of the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations mandates that no advertisements may appear on television broadcasts, public exhibition, or publishing it in any newspaper, magazine, or periodical unless authorised and in accordance with the written directions of the Returning Officer.

In short, only unmodified recordings of actual events such as rallies and declarations of party’s positions on policies will not be considered party political films and will be allowed to be broadcasted without having to go through classification by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). This exemption also includes films that are only posted online, but they must be subjected to both the Films Act, i.e., no political party films can be made, and the Internet Code of Practice.

However there is a window of opportunity that comes with COVID-19 in terms of reaching out to audiences who do not frequent social media. In the absence of physical rallies, political parties will be allowed more airtime on national TV. In addition to two political party broadcasts across 19 TV and radio channels, constituency political broadcasts will be aired on Mediacorp’s Channel 5.

This gives 3 minutes of airtime to a candidate contesting in a Single Member Constituency (SMC) and 12 or 15 minutes for a group of candidates contesting in a 4 or 5 member Group Representation Constituency (GRC). The only limitation here is candidates can only speak in the four official languages. This means that dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew are not allowed, and this may affect the dissemination of messages to the older Chinese population.

Having said that, this window of opportunity comes with a catch – IMDA rules that parties have to submit their script 48 hours prior to E-rallies. Raising this concern, PSP’s candidate for Tanjong Pagar, Michael Chua said, “It is rather disconcerting to us, because traditionally in a live rally, the speaker, the candidate will present their ideas directly to the voters and residents. In this instance, because of the mechanism of the E-rallies, we have to submit everything ahead of time, potentially, other people are also looking at whatever we submit.”

Challenge #4 – COVID-19 and its impact on livelihoods

COVID-19 has brought about a wave of economic uncertainty among the Singapore populace.

This uncertainty and the fear of COVID-19’s impact on the economy and how that affects livelihoods will be on the mind of most voters. It will certainly play a part in voting behaviour due to the timing of this election.

Alternative parties have presented their recommendations on policies that affect economic growth, jobs, wages, taxation for social redistribution and retirement adequacy. However, the “flight to safety” that occurs during a major existential crisis as a pandemic will likely play a part on voters’ psychology.

The PAP, having formed the government since Singapore’s independence, has the unchallenged advantage of being the brand that voters know best, as the saying goes “better the devil you know”. Even though evidence of PAP’s landslide wins in past GEs leading to better livelihood and economic opportunities for all Singaporeans is few and far between, and one of the main causes of rising inequality in Singapore.

As long as PAP is seen as the only stable party and political brand in Singapore, it is a steep challenge for any alternative party, particularly so in the time of COVID-19 when voters are overwhelmingly concerned about livelihood issues and job prospects in the months and years to come.

Our responsibility is in questioning the system

It is common knowledge that the alternative parties have worked hard to prepare for the GE. They have attracted new and credible talents, organised themselves and have found new ways to communicate with voters. The GE in the time of COVID-19 will indeed go ahead with the new rules and restrictions in place, and all parties will have to deal with the challenges.

Nevertheless it is important to question the way Singapore’s electoral system has been organised and how that structure, even in the absence of COVID-19, denies those who would like to offer Singaporeans an alternative a fair opportunity to do so time after time.

Only by doing so will we begin to be clearer in our call for change as well as our judgment on the integrity of those in the alternative parties who have persisted in standing strongly by and keeping faith with such an undemocratic system,  now made worse by the global pandemic.

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