Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has dissolved parliament for snap elections on July 10, months before they are due and even as the city-state battles the coronavirus pandemic.
The dissolution of parliament late on Tuesday came just four days after the city-state lifted most coronavirus restrictions, and appeared to be an attempt to take advantage of a quiet window before a possible worsening of the pandemic’s impact.
On Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, announced that he would join an opposition party to contest the elections, but had not yet decided if he would stand as a candidate.
Prime Minister Lee said the country must prepare for ups and downs, noting there had been a resurgence in cases in some countries that had reopened.
He also said Singapore had not felt the full brunt of the economic fallout yet, so there were likely to be more business closures and higher unemployment.
“A long struggle lies ahead,” he said in a televised speech.
“An election now when things are relatively stable will clear the decks and give the new government a fresh full five-year mandate. It can then focus on this national agenda and the difficult decisions it will have to make and to carry.”
Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which has held power uninterrupted since 1959, is widely expected to keep its overwhelming majority in parliament, where it currently holds 83 of the 89 seats.
Solid ruling bloc
Singapore was initially hailed as a model for containing the virus, but cases in the country of only 5.8 million people then soared to more than 42,000, one of the highest infection rates in Asia, with most linked to dormitories used to house foreign migrant workers.
Lee said infections in the dorms have declined, while cases outside have stabilised.
He said he decided to hold elections now because there was “no assurance” the pandemic would end by next April.
In a report issued on 16 June, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights said smaller parties were likely to be put at a further disadvantage by measures imposed to reduce the coronavirus risk.
The group, which includes MPs from across Southeast Asia, noted that Singapore’s electoral bodies reported to the prime minister’s office, campaigning usually lasted for only 11 days, and candidate registration fees were high, an issue compounded in the city-state’s multi-member constituencies.
As a result of the pandemic, the government has said political rallies will not be allowed and voters will be allocated time slots to cast their ballots on election day.
“There is a reason the PAP has won every election since 1959,” Teddy Baguilat Jr, the executive director of APHR and a former MP from the Philippines said at the launch of the report. “The entire process is heavily stacked in its favour.”
Lee has said political parties can still campaign effectively, while voters will be able to cast ballots safely, citing examples in recent elections held in South Korea, Taiwan and several European countries. More polling stations would be set up, senior citizens would have priority, and safe distancing rules would be observed, he added.
The test for 68-year-old Lee, who wants to transfer power to his party’s next generation of politicians, will be whether it can retain the 69.9 percent share of the vote it secured in 2015.
The Singapore Democratic Party, one of several small opposition parties, accused the PAP of “putting its own political future above the safety and well-being of Singaporeans.”
“We are used to the uneven playing field, but this time, the PAP has outdone itself by banning rallies, limiting ground campaigns and totally monopolising the state media for broadcasts of their agenda,” it said in a statement.
— The Straits Times (@STcom) June 24, 2020
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s brother, told Reuters he had joined the newly founded Progress Singapore Party.
Lee Hsien Yang has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with his brother over the house of their late father, Lee Kuan Yew.
“We will see,” Lee replied, when asked if he would stand as a candidate.