POLITICS AND/OR PANDEMICS?
On 13 March 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 200 in Singapore, with 13 new confirmed cases of infections and 97 fully recovered from the fatal virus.
Then, the Ministry of Health announced safe distancing advisories to curtail proximity contact and large gatherings over extended durations across public venues, workplaces and eateries. All ticketed sports, cultural and entertainment events which had over 250 participants were also scheduled for cancellation or deferment.
Since the country’s first confirmed case on 13 January, Singapore has been scrambling to contain the spread of the deadly virus; ramping up intensive contact tracing efforts, controlling access to high traffic venues, enforcing safe distancing measures, legislating Parliamentary Bills to curtail further viral transmission, and to-date, rolling out (and extending) a ‘Circuit Breaker’ period which lasted from 7 April to 1 June 2020.
13 March 2020 was also the day when the Elections Department Singapore (ELD) released the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report after an 8-month long wait with modifications to the electoral rules of engagement. The release of the report and its constitutional amendments have conventionally signalled the nearing of Singapore’s next General Election (GE), with the event happening any time within 2 to 4 months (or less) of the release. Given the international and nationwide focus on fighting COVID-19 however, calling for an election in the midst of a pandemic may not be the most befitting move.
Or, is it?
OF POLITICS AND PANDEMICS
Earlier in April this year, South Korea held one of its most successful elections despite being one of the initial worst-hit countries by COVID-19. Voting was achieved almost entirely in person with a record highest voter turnout rate of 66.2% since 1992. More significantly, there were no cases of local transmission reported. During the voting period, extensive safe distancing and safety measures were adopted. These included temperature screening, hand sanitizing, usage of disposable gloves and protective gear, ensuring safe distancing of at least 1-metre apart and allowing approximately 40% of voters to cast their ballots early. President Moon Jae-In’s administrative party which was initially forecasted to struggle in the elections saw a reversal in their political fortunes with an almost landslide victory, an effective referendum of the party’s competent handling of the crisis.
So do politics and pandemics fare well together? How do Singaporeans feel towards the government if the next GE is to be held amidst the current COVID-19 climate? Will their voting decisions be influenced?
To explore these sentiments, Black Dot Research conducted a survey with 139 respondents, collating responses across a mix of age groups, education backgrounds, genders and ethnicities representative of the Singapore population.
MAY I HAVE THE (CORONAVIRUS) BILL PLEASE?
One of the latest contingency legislations passed in face of COVID-19 was the announcement of the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill by Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on 4 May.
Over two-thirds of our respondents (69%) indicated an awareness of the new Bill, where voters under COVID-19 stay orders at designated quarantine facilities will be allowed to vote outside their electoral divisions. Aspiring candidates who, due to COVID-19, are unable or unfit to file nomination papers are allowed to authorise a representative – a Singapore citizen eligible to vote – to file nomination papers on their behalf.
While the existing Parliamentary Elections Act (Sections 56A to 56F) contains legislative powers to deal with disruptive events such as open violence or riots, health hazards, natural disasters and other unforeseen situations, the new Bill makes for supplementary provisional safety arrangements to allow Singaporeans on stay-home notices for viral and respiratory infections to vote in the upcoming election should it be called.
Despite safe voting being the foremost priority of the new legislation, only less than half (39%) of our respondents felt that it would be effective in allaying health risks. Citing a respondent,
“Adding election responsibilities to the people now might be one straw too many for the camel’s back…regardless of any new law for safety.”
Instead of introducing new legislation to ensure the safety of citizens during voting, a large majority (71%) felt that the government should not hold the election at all while fighting the virus – not at least until the situation has subsided or stabilised.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS ‘A GOOD TIME’
Since the introduction of the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill, speculations have been rife with regard to whether Singapore’s next election is approaching.
Following the announcement of Singapore’s fourth support package – The Fortitude Budget – to cushion the impacts of COVID-19 on the economy on 26 May, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat affirmed that the GE must occur by 14 April 2021. Minister Heng stated that as the COVID-19 situation is likely to persist in the near future, he rallied for the understanding of Singaporeans to permit a fresh mandate and full term to tackle the uncertainties and challenges ahead at “soonest”. His standpoint has similarly been echoed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who concurred with the necessity of proceeding with the election amidst the COVID-19 situation as life and democracy “have to go on”.
However, opposition political parties have also stepped out to criticise the government for irresponsibly “capitalising on the crisis” to endanger public health when all state resources ought to be funnelled towards managing the spread of the deadly virus. 8 out of the 11 opposition parties have called for a deferment of the election.
Likewise, when posed the hypothetical question to gather respondents’ perceptions towards the government if the GE was called during the current COVID-19 situation, an overwhelming 82% felt that the timing would be inappropriate. 73% indicated that it would be unwise of the government to make such a decision. Over half (60%) thought that it would detract critical attention away from tackling the coronavirus. 68% also felt that an election in the current climate would diminish the government’s legitimacy.
Delaying the GE appeared to be the preferred option amongst our panel of respondents – but not for too long either.
Between January 2021 to April 2021 ranked first (45%) in what respondents deemed to be the most suitable timing to hold the election, while a slight delay to conduct the election later this year between August 2020 to December 2020 came in as the next most appropriate option (34%). 11% of respondents felt that before August 2020 might be good, with only one-tenth (10%) preferring a postponement till after April 2021 next year.
‘LIVES MATTER MORE THAN VOTES’
Above all, managing the current COVID-19 situation came in as the forefront factor that will impact our respondents’ voting decisions. While the timing of when the election would take place made a difference to 61% of our respondents’ votes, the government’s capacity to manage the coronavirus ranked even higher in influencing 88% of our respondents’ voting decision.
Managing daily cases of COVID-19 infections, handling associated impacts as well as the economic aftermath and recovery of the nation were ranked as more important over the timing of Singapore’s next GE. A common concern reflected by a substantial majority of our panel was the dire need to “tackle the current COVID-19 situation” and “waiting for the matter to stabilise before thinking about GE”, revealing that politics isn’t exactly the top priority on their minds today.
Our panel is not alone in their sentiment.
In the U.S., the sudden onslaught of the global pandemic has resulted in various states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Jersey postponing their presidential primary elections to June, with some states like Montana and Wyoming even getting rid of in-person voting for mail-in ballots. A survey conducted by Pew Research Centre earlier in March this year also revealed 7 in 10 voters in the U.S. to be in favour of these arrangements. This appeared to be a bipartisan expression as well, with 71% of Democratic voters and 64% of Republican voters agreeing on the need to postpone primary elections to contain the pandemic.
HOPES FOR A (NEW) FUTURE?
We are no strangers to the endless possibilities spurred by the utility of technology in today’s cyber world. Contact tracing apps like TraceTogether and SafeEntry, which were probably inconceivable 20 (or even 10) years back, are today fulfilled with technology to permit surveillance and tracking of viral pathways to contain the spread of the virus.
But what about voting? Can technology replace the necessity of in-person votes and more importantly, will it guarantee the privacy of these votes? Will online voting through remote and virtual spaces turn into a new reality?
Although Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing dispelled this possibility earlier in Parliament by saying that security risks and privacy concerns have yet to be resolved, no one knows for certain the potential and development of technology that might very well find its way into the political arena.
Nonetheless, will it be an unfolding electoral tragedy or victory for the incumbent government? Does the decision have to be between public health or the hopes of a better governance? Can politics and pandemics ever fare well together? We can only look forward to hopeful days ahead for these illuminations.