Avoiding an Opposition slaughter at the polls? Probably only one way – generate a by-election effect

Let’s face the reality. The Opposition is doomed if the General Election (GE) is called in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. According to several political observers, the GE can come as soon as mid-April to early May. PAP’s victory is virtually guaranteed in the event of a COVID-19 election. Singaporeans will swim towards a safe harbor, tried and test, in the middle of a health and possibly economic crisis.

Thus far, the strategy of the Opposition has been to label the incumbent government for being irresponsible should they call an election in the next few months. That is actually a fair enough point. That said, no amount of whining by the Opposition will change the government’s considerations, because the incumbent gets to decide when to dissolve parliament under the Westminster Parliamentary system. You can cry foul, but rules are rules at the end of the day. A goal awarded by the VAR is still a goal.

What the Opposition has to think about is how they can get through a COVID-19 election with some shreds of credibility intact. How they can preserve some past gains, and hopefully survive in the next five years after this coming election.

The way I see it, there is probably only one way the Opposition can prevent a complete slaughter at the polls (apart from hoping that the PAP will somehow implode). And that is to adopt a strategy that was espoused by veteran Opposition leader Chiam See Tong in the 1991 GE – the By-Election Strategy.

The strategy means having to coordinate all Opposition parties to contest in less than half the parliamentary seats, which ensures that the PAP will still form the government regardless of the results in the contest seats. In actual figures, this means that the Opposition will have to contest 46 seats or less, out of the 93 seats available at the next GE.

The logic behind the strategy is that with the “By-Election Effect”, voters will be more willing to vote for the Opposition in the contested wards, with the assurance that the PAP will still form the government at the end of the day. Without the fear of having a “freak election”, and waking up the next day to find themselves having a new government, without any form of experience, to deal with COVID-19 and a whole host of other difficult issues.

In fact, if the Opposition were to be smart about it, they would also avoid contesting the constituencies helmed by Lee Hsien Loong, as well as key 4G leaders such as “Fumble/Half-time” Heng Swee Keat and Chan “Xiasuay/Kee Chiu” Chun Sing. That would give voters even greater assurance that they can vote for the Opposition freely, without destabilising the core of the PAP leadership.

However, the only thing that is stopping the Opposition from adopting such a strategy in 2020 is the Opposition itself. But is that possible? The magic number is 46 seats. But WP alone contested in 28 seats in 2016, SDP contested 11, NSP contested 12 and Reform Party contested 11. And we have newer players this time round, with Tan Cheng Bock’s party in play.

The logical thing for the Opposition to do right now is to get together and discuss. Instead, they have started “chope” seats, hawker centre-style. For instance, Reform Party indicated that they would be contesting in West Coast GRC, which we all know Tan Cheng Bock will most likely go for.

With various Chieftains wanting a slice of the pie, the Opposition is unlikely to come to such an agreement – it would take a miracle to stop them from going into three cornered fights with the PAP, let alone agree collectively to contest less than half of the seats available.

It’s a pity, really. If this persists, the results of the next GE will be a foregone conclusion, and the Opposition will be, partly, the architects of their own destruction.

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