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Voters: Is a freak election likely?

The Straits Times | Tham Yuen-C | Monday, Nov 3, 2014

ON NOV 21, the People's Action Party will mark its 60th anniversary, after a record 55 years in power.

The Men in White - as the party is sometimes known, after adopting the white-on-white uniform to signal its corruption-free emphasis - has ruled continuously since Independence, transforming the country into a modern metropolis. Only one other democratically elected political party, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, has been able to maintain a longer unbroken reign, of 71 years.

But the last General Election in 2011, when the PAP garnered its lowest winning vote share since Independence - 60.1 per cent - still looms large. As the PAP prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, the big question is: Will it remain the dominant party?

The Singapore of today faces quite different challenges, compared with the issues of independence from colonial rule and sheer day-to-day survival that were paramount concerns when the PAP was formed back in 1954.

Some 1,500 men and women, locals chafing under post-war British rule, packed the Victoria Concert Hall on that momentous day to choose leaders for their fledgling party - one that went on to form the government in 1955 and that would guide the country through a series of crises in those early years. In 1965 came the greatest of these - Singapore was booted out of Malaysia.

It had become a country, and the PAP rose to the challenge of this landmark event - it has been in charge ever since, and confounded the doubters who thought that Singapore could not stand on its own two feet.

However, even though Singapore is now a financial powerhouse, and Singaporeans enjoy one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world, it is not a time for the PAP to rest on its laurels.

A recent lecture on governance and politics by public intellectual Ho Kwon Ping had him pointing to historical trends elsewhere that suggest a potential election loss for the PAP. This, he predicted, would not happen in the next three elections, but could occur sometime well after that.

He sketched out three ways that the party could lose power: through an accidental or freak election that throws out the PAP; a split within the PAP because of internal differences; or an anticipated, outright loss, because of the loss of legitimacy and trust, for example, due to corruption.

Insight examines three factors that will determine the party's hold on power - the changing electorate, the need for it to remain dynamic, and the state of the opposition.

AMONG the scenarios Mr Ho Kwon Ping sketched for Singapore in the longer term - meaning sometime after three more elections - is the possibility of the ruling party being booted out because of a freak result.

This idea first reared its head 30 years ago, when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew warned of the possibility that Singaporeans could get more than they wished for if they assumed the People's Action Party (PAP) would win, and so threw in a vote to the other side instead.

The party had just suffered a 12-percentage-point swing against it in the 1984 election - the biggest since it assumed power - and protest votes were thought to be the cause.

This was amid a confluence of unpopular policies, such as the raising of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) withdrawal age and a scheme that favoured graduate mothers having more children.

For years afterwards, the spectre of the PAP unwittingly being dumped by protest votes would be invoked.

It was to mitigate against such a possibility that the Elected Presidency was passed into law in 1991, to safeguard the country's reserves and the integrity of the public service.

But three decades on, the phrase "freak election" has surfaced among politicos, and voters are being cautioned against ignoring the possibility.

In sketching how the PAP might lose its dominance, Mr Ho singled this out as the most likely of three scenarios. The others: an internal party split; and a massive loss of confidence in the PAP, due perhaps to corruption, among other things.

He said Singapore's first-past- the-post Westminster system, where a party could control the House by winning just a simple majority of the votes cast, could lull PAP supporters into a false sense of security. If enough of them voted against the PAP to protest against the party or to check its power, it could result in an unintended loss of power.

Past voting patterns may be instructive: vote swings, both against and for the party, have averaged about 6 percentage points in the seven general elections since 1984.

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