Singaporeans vote in snap election under coronavirus cloud

Queues formed early outside polling stations with strict conditions enforced to curb the risks from coronavirus.

    Voters sanitise their hands at a polling station as part of preventive measures against the coronavirus as voting got under way in Singapore's general election [Edgar Su/Reuters]
    Voters sanitise their hands at a polling station as part of preventive measures against the coronavirus as voting got under way in Singapore's general election [Edgar Su/Reuters]

    Singaporeans started voting in a snap on Friday election with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) looking to shore up its dominant position on the island it has governed since independence in 1965.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the election on June 24, saying the PAP, which had 83 of the 89 seats in the last parliament, needed a fresh mandate in order to take Singapore through the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

    "Do not undermine a system that has served you well," the 68-year-old said on the campaign trail.

    Many of the earliest voters were the elderly, who were advised to vote when polling stations opened at 8am (00:00 GMT) under strict conditions imposed as a result of the coronavirus.

    The polls will close at 10pm (2pm GMT), two hours later than previously planned as long queues formed at some polling stations due to the extra virus checks. Officials from the Elections Department Singapore apologised "for the wait and the inconvenience". 

    Everyone is required to wear masks, and voters are expected to spend no more than five minutes in a polling station, where they must scan their identity cards, sanitise their hands and put on disposable gloves before receiving a ballot paper. Singapore has 2.65 million eligible voters.

    COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine cannot vote, but a mobile polling team will bring the ballot box to the rooms of Singaporeans who have recently returned from overseas and are in isolation at hotels.

    Singapore is not the first country in Asia to hold elections during the pandemic - South Korea held parliamentary elections in April - but strict conditions related to the virus have further constrained campaigning.

    Strict rules

    Candidates had to adhere to social distancing rules limiting groups to five, and avoid shaking hands or fist bumping. Mass rallies - often attended by thousands and a key platform for opposition parties - were banned. Instead, candidates went online, livestreaming discussions that generally failed to match the excitement of the rallies.

    People vote in Singapore's general election amid Covid-19
    Singapore's President Halimah Yacob, in green, joins a queue of voters at a polling station. The general election is taking place amid strict conditions because of the coronavirus [Edgar Su/Reuters]

    The polls are being seen as a measure of approval for both the government's response to the coronavirus crisis and the PAP's next generation of politicians since Lee, who has been prime minister since 2004 is expected to retire in the coming years.

    Opinion polls are banned during the election campaign, but the poll results will be closely watched as even small shifts in popularity can lead to major policy changes.

    When concerns about immigration and jobs flared in 2011, the PAP polled a record-low 60 percent of the vote and tightened rules on hiring staff from overseas to address voters' sensitivities.

    With the country now facing its deepest-ever recession as a result of the coronavirus, those concerns are once again in voters' minds.

    "I think it's OK to vote during a pandemic because the conditions aren't that severe at this point and all necessary precautions are being taken," said Malini Nathan, 42, a communications executive.

    "Issues I am concerned about are healthcare, job security and retirement," Nathan said.

    Lee vs Lee

    A move by Lee's estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, who once helmed the country's top telecommunications company, to join one of the opposition parties added some excitement to the campaign.

    The two fell out in a simmering feud over the fate of their father's home.

    "Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore," Lee, who decided not to run as a candidate, wrote in a Facebook post this week. "It's not 'rocking the boat' but saving our boat from sinking."

    Sample counts are expected soon after the close of polls at 8pm (12:00 GMT) with final results due in the early hours of Saturday.

    The city-state has one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world, and earned early praise for its containment efforts.

    However, after mass outbreaks emerged in the cramped dormitories that are home to the thousands of migrants who work in construction and other low-paid jobs the government imposed a renewed lockdown, which it called a "circuit breaker".

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies