Singapore heads for polls despite virus outbreak

The People's Action Party has ruled Singapore since it gained self-rule from Britain in 1959 (AFP Photo/Roslan RAHMAN)

Singapore’s parliament was dissolved Tuesday for an election even as the city-state struggles to recover from a major coronavirus outbreak that has swept through crowded migrant worker dormitories.

A raft of safety measures will be in place to prevent infections, with voters required to wear masks and gloves at polling stations while campaign rallies look set to be banned.

The financial hub initially won praise for keeping the virus in check with a rigorous system of testing and contact tracing, only for infections to later hit massive dormitory complexes housing low-paid foreign workers.

More than 42,000 cases have been reported in the city-state, the vast majority among migrant workers. The death toll stands at 26.

But with the outbreak slowing and authorities gradually loosening virus curbs, the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is pushing ahead with an election that must be held by April next year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced he had advised the president to dissolve parliament for a general election. The date of the vote will be announced later, but it is expected in July.

In a televised address, he sought to play up the authorities’ handling of the virus crisis, saying that Singapore had “responded decisively” and the country was now in a “stable position”.

“This general election will be like no other we have experienced… because of the gravity of the situation and the issues at stake,” he said.

The PAP has ruled affluent Singapore since it gained self-rule from Britain in 1959, and the party, which holds 82 of 88 elected seats in parliament, is assured of victory.

But holding a poll as the city-state emerges from the outbreak is risky, and it is not clear whether it will boost the government’s support or damage it.

While the government insists it has successfully tackled the virus, it has been accused of not doing enough to protect migrant workers.

Opposition groups have also attacked the timing of the poll, with the Singapore Democratic Party saying that calling an election next month would “needlessly jeopardise the safety and health of Singaporeans”.

The weak and divided opposition has little chance against the PAP. The party maintains solid support but critics accuse it of gerrymandering and targeting opponents to ensure they cannot mount a strong challenge.

The polls are also part of a carefully orchestrated transfer of power to a new generation of leaders.


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