By Daniel Moss
THE CORONAVIRUS that has upended the world’s economic and social life is turning out to be a mediocre election campaigner. The lesson of recent contests in Asia is that pre-existing conditions haven’t gone away and will likely be decisive, even in the bitterly fought US campaign.
Singapore’s general election Friday, among the first of the COVID-19 era, saw a big swing against the entrenched incumbent party that positioned itself as best placed to steer the country through the pandemic. With a history of unbroken rule since independence in 1965, four swiftly passed stimulus bills and relatively few virus deaths, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party banked on receiving a strong mandate. Instead, the opposition made historic gains.
The government was on the defensive, but not so much for the way it handled the disease. Issues that have percolated for years — population size, immigration, inequality and checks on executive power — forced their way to the forefront. The coronavirus was present, though not the be all and end all. It also took a back seat in special elections in Australia and Malaysia. Electoral battles, as always, need to be picked, and fought shrewdly, on local conditions.
There’s been a growing expectation as the pandemic deeply disrupted societies that it would deliver political victory, or oblivion. Certainly, the coronavirus has magnified important bread and butter issues — the global economy is suffering the deepest downturn in almost a century, and more than half a million people have lost their lives. Many concerns are now viewed — and some given greater urgency — through a COVID prism.
Yet the past week has shown there’s been no flight to safety; nor has there been a mad rush to throw office-holders out. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s fairly successful handling of the virus, despite a major recent setback in Melbourne, wasn’t enough to overcome the fiasco from devastating wildfires six months ago. A mayor who had been among his biggest critics hung on to a federal parliamentary seat for the opposition Labor party July 4; a few weeks earlier, Morrison had liked his chances of taking the district. The same day, a by-election for a state assembly slot in Malaysia said more about dynamics among the parties claiming to represent the Malay majority than it did about COVID-19. Former premier Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional retained the seat in thumping fashion, getting 10 times more votes than other parties combined.
In Singapore, opportunities did beckon for the opposition to run with the COVID issue. After initial plaudits, Singapore soon ran into challenges. There were U-turns on masks, whether the spread would require a lockdown (yes, still partly in place), and criticism from a surge in infections in crowded dormitories for foreign workers. The Workers Party mostly shied away from a direct fight on this turf. It tried hard to portray itself as responsible opponents who would fight on selected issues with grassroots appeal, rather than simply blast the PAP on everything, everywhere. Leader Pritam Singh said Saturday that “we’ve got to keep our feet grounded,” the Straits Times reported.
The Workers Party instead chipped away at the government’s stance on taxation, sought greater protection for local employees, advocated a minimum wage and a beefed-up social safety net. An opposition politician from another party sparked a fracas by saying the government had toyed with the idea of boosting the population to 10 million, a claim the PAP strenuously denied. Headcount is now 5.7 million, up about 40% since 2000. Complaints about overcrowding on subways, housing prices, and job opportunities for locals have been building over the past decade.
The campaign closed with opposition parties urging voters to deny the government a blank check in parliament. The PAP received what would, in many countries, be thought of as a great mandate. But in a Singapore context, it was a shock: The opposition won 10 of 93 seats up for grabs. The PAP’s share of the vote fell to 61.2% from almost 70% in 2015. It would be a stretch to say that Singapore is heading toward a two-party system similar to other developed countries. But if you squint, you can just about see the beginning of the outline.
Two of the ruling party’s worst results have come in the past decade, and the issues by and large haven’t changed much. Those vying for office elsewhere, or seeking to keep power, need to have a vision that both encompasses, and also transcends, the tussle against infectious disease. It’s not enough to hope that a badly handled pandemic battle, or even a pretty-well executed one, will be decisive. Local conditions are hard to replicate precisely. Comparisons between Singapore and, say, the US, only go so far, given differences of history and political philosophy. But perceptions of inequality, worries about job security, an aging society, and healthcare resonate in most places and have been gnawing away at democracies long before COVID-19. In this, Singapore has been firmly in the mainstream.
Hammering President Donald Trump for his bungled response to the pandemic is justified. It’s unlikely to be enough, as his Democrat opponent Joe Biden seems to appreciate. Biden’s announced plan Thursday to revive the economy from the virus-related recession with a promise to “build back better” is a good start. That means a focus on manufacturing, infrastructure and clean energy, advancing racial equality and modernizing the “caring” economy.
COVID-19 certainly can shift priorities. Politicians would discount it at great peril. But for whatever challenges a post-pandemic normal might bring, Asia’s most recent electoral experiences show old realities are far from extinguished. Politicians everywhere would do well to learn from it.