Singapore polls open; governing party set to extend power

Wearing masks and plastic gloves, Singaporeans are voting in a general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s long-governing party to power

SINGAPORE — Wearing masks and plastic gloves, Singaporeans began voting Friday in a general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s long-governing party to power.

Senior citizens were the first to cast ballots as 1,100 polling stations across the city-state opened at 8 a.m., with strict safety measures in place for Southeast Asia’s first national election since the coronavirus pandemic began. Older voters were scheduled to vote early in the day as protection against the virus, and people being treated for COVID-19 or under quarantine at home were not allowed to vote.

The health crisis and concerns over an economic recession will likely send voters opting for stability under Lee’s People’s Action Party. It faces 10 small opposition parties that are contesting the 93 parliamentary seats mostly on a one-on-one basis against the PAP. The opposition has said it does not want to govern, but urged the 2.65 million eligible voters to reduce the PAP’s overwhelming majority in parliament and deny it a “blank check.”

The PAP has dominated politics since 1959, when Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore’s first prime minister and built the resource-poor city-state into one of the world’s richest nations during 31 years in office. In 2015, the party won 69.9% of the total vote and 93% of parliamentary seats. But it has also been criticized for tight government control, media censorship and use of oppressive laws and civil lawsuits against dissidents.

Retiree Dennis Phua, 74 , said the vote shouldn’t have been rushed as the PAP’s five-year mandate would last to April next year. He hopes for louder opposition voices in parliament so the PAP wont be “so arrogant.”

“There are so many things we are not satisfied with. It’s a good government, but the way they do things can be better,” said a masked Phua as he queued outside a school to vote.

But not all agree.

“I hope that it will remain as status quo. For so many years, it has been the same and so far so good,” said homemaker Florence See, 64. She praised the government for putting in place strict measures to protect voters.

Lee has faced opposition from his estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who said the PAP had turned into an elitist party. The younger Lee joined an opposition party last month but is not running in the election. The prime minister has said the polls are about securing the country’s future, not his family feud.

“We need a strong and capable government. Not only to take decisive action to prevent another major outbreak, but also to save businesses and jobs, which is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Lee said in a televised speech late Thursday.

Singapore’s election follows polls in Mongolia last month and in South Korea in April, when governing parties in both countries scored resounding victories.

The polls come just weeks after the country emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling one of Asia’s worst virus outbreaks. The tiny nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, most of them foreign workers living in crowded dormitories that were overlooked in the early phase of its crisis management.

With the economy forecast to shrink this year by up to 7%, Lee’s government has unveiled several economic assistance packages totaling nearly 100 billion Singapore dollars ($71.7 billion) but warned the full economic impact hasn’t been felt yet.

While coronavirus cases have mostly declined, new daily cases still top 100. The government says the elections can be held safely with the number of polling stations increased from 880 to 1,100 and other safety measures.

All voters are required to wear masks and be screened for fever and respiratory symptoms upon arrival. They must use hand sanitizer and disposable gloves when casting ballots and keep one meter (yard) away from others.

Voters are allocated a two-hour window to cast their ballots to reduce crowding. Election officials wear full personal protective gear and polling booths are sanitized every half hour. The last hour of voting is reserved for those with fever or on stay-home notice after returning from overseas.

Polls will be open 12 hours and results are expected to begin arriving late Friday,

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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