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Singapore's Lee calls election for new mandate to fight pandemic

Jun 23. 2020
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By Bloomberg · Philip J. Heijmans, Faris Mokhtar 

Singapore will hold an election on July 10 as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seeks a renewed mandate to govern amid the coronavirus pandemic that has pummeled the country's economy.

Lee said Tuesday that he advised President Halimah Yacob to dissolve parliament and issue the writ of election, setting the stage for the upcoming polls. Candidate nominations will take place on June 30, the prime minister's office said.

"We need a capable government, with the strong backing of the people, to do all that needs to be done on your behalf, and see us through these tumultuous times," Lee said in a televised address. "An election now -- when things are relatively stable -- will clear the decks, and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate."

The government's approach to tackling Covid-19 and the economic fallout is set to become a defining issue in the vote. Singapore, which has more than 42,000 confirmed cases of the virus, last week further relaxed restrictive measures and allowed most activities to resume, with authorities assessing the infection situation to be under control.

Co-founded by his father and founding premier Lee Kuan Yew, the People's Action Party has been in power since Singapore's independence in 1965. Popular among Singaporeans, it has maintained power through a combination of successful economic management, the lack of a united opposition and election rules favoring the incumbents.

"I think we shouldn't be expecting any massive upset," said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. "But I don't think that's really the focus of the ruling party -- I think their focus would be on the margin of victory."

Lee, 68, has been actively grooming what he calls the "fourth generation" of PAP politicians. He has signaled he intends to step aside by the time he turns 70 in 2022. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also finance minister, has been tipped to take over the top job.

In his speech on Tuesday, Lee spoke about the challenges facing the country, from business closures and rising unemployment within the city-state to geopolitical uncertainties ranging from U.S.-China tensions to border clashes between China and India.

"Singapore has not yet felt the full economic fallout from Covid-19, but it is coming," Lee said. "Despite all the measures we have taken, there will be more business closures, and more retrenchments in the coming months. Unemployment will go up."

The virus is expected to have a deep impact on the city-state's trade-reliant economy. The government is now forecasting a full-year economic contraction of up to 7%, which would mark the worst downturn for the country since its independence.

In an effort to help troubled companies and citizens, Singapore has announced four separate stimulus packages, taking the nation's total coronavirus relief to S$92.9 billion, or 19.2% of gross domestic product. The measures are being funded in part by some S$52 billion being drawn this financial year from the nation's reserves. Support measures have included individual cash handouts, wage subsidies and rental rebates.

The election announcement comes as the country just enters the second phase of a three-stage easing of lockdown measures following some two months where schools and most work places were shut. Shops have re-opened and dine-in at restaurants can resume, subject to safe distancing principles such as not having more than five people in a group and individuals maintaining a distance of at least one meter at all times.

Singapore's opposition has been critical about holding elections in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. The social-liberal Singapore Democratic Party has said holding an election in July would be "reckless" and "needlessly jeopardize the safety and health" of voters, while Tan Cheng Bock, leader of the recently founded Progress Singapore Party said last week an election now would be "very dangerous."

Lee cited elections this year in places such as South Korea as among reasons to go forward with the vote, together with other voting and campaigning precautions. Initially one of the world's hardest hit countries, South Korea successfully carried out a legislative vote in April that resulted in a majority for President Moon Jae-in's party.

The ruling People's Action Party government initially won praise from public health experts for its response to the outbreak, when it sought to apply a gradual suite of safety measures to contain the disease while trying to keep the economy moving. But like many countries, its initial strategy did not account for how contagious the coronavirus is, forcing them into a stringent lockdown that has only just been eased.

The city-state saw cases spike, particularly from an outbreak among the more than 300,000 migrant workers living in tightly-spaced dormitories. While Singapore has one of the highest recorded number of virus infections in Asia, just under 0.5% of total cases resulted in hospitalization: As of Monday, only one person was in intensive care and 26 people have died.

While the ruling party is likely to see its vote share fall from the last election in 2015, a risk-averse populace and a weak opposition means it will maintain a comfortable grip on power, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

"The recent stabilisation of confirmed community coronavirus cases has given the administration confidence to go ahead with calling the election," it said. Still, it added, any surge from now until polling day "might lead to criticism on the government's decision, and will, therefore, backfire its approval rating."

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