Singapore's ruling party tightens its grip on power

Economic threats and electoral system ensure PAP wins island state's poll, writes

Following the most savage election campaign in Singapore's history, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has retained its stranglehold on power by winning 81 of the 83 seats in parliament in yesterday's poll.

The opposition parties also lost ground in terms of the overall popular vote, gaining around a third of the total, compared with the 39 per cent they won in the 1991 election.

However, under Singapore's unique electoral system, winning this proportion of the vote yielded only two parliamentary seats for opposition parties.

In the course of the nine-day campaign the opposition generated far more excitement than the ruling party by holding monster rallies around the island. Candidates also reported an unusually high level of public positive response when campaigning door to door.

The campaign was dominated by savage attacks on one of the leading opposition politicians, the 61-year-old lawyer Tang Liang Hong, whom the PAP accused of being a "Chinese chauvinist". More significantly, however, the ruling party made it clear that those voting for the opposition would pay a high price for not supporting the government. The Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong threatened that his party would examine the election results precinct by precinct to identify where voters failed to support the PAP.

He said that the government would follow a "winner takes all" principle, meaning that those who supported the government would get better public services, while opposition areas would be left at the end of the queue. Mr Goh explained this as meaning that voters would "win big or lose big", depending on whether or not they voted for the ruling party.

Although the PAP fought the election as though it were fighting for its political life, it won the election before it began because the opposition contested only a minority of seats.

The ruling party made it clear that it saw no role for opposition members in parliament. "Opposition politicians are not what you call deep politicians," said Lee Kwan Yew, the grand old man of Singapore politics. "They are superficial ones." The PAP repeatedly described this election as a "watershed".

Last night Mr Goh said he was satisfied with the result because the voters "have rejected Western-style democracy and freedoms".

The election reduced the opposition from four members to two. They will have a difficult job representing the country's entire opposition in the face of an increasingly aggressive ruling party, showing few signs of looking for compromises.

The PAP will be particularly pleased to have defeated Chee Soon Juan, one of its most articulate critics in parliament.

It also took the scalp of JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore's most enduring opposition leader. However the biggest prize was the defeat of Tang Liang Hong. The PAP said it was justified in launching an onslaught on Mr Tang because he threatened to upset the delicate racial balance in the country, a charge he vigorously denied, saying that he had become the focus of the government's ire because he spoke for the mass of the people excluded from the political process.

Shortly before the poll MrGoh said that his personal standing and that of his two deputies were at stake should Mr Tang win. In the event he has strengthened his position against some internal party criticism.

The PAP has won all eight elections held since independence in 1965. Its political domination is heavily fortified by control of the media.

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