Singaporeans wearing masks and gloves cast their ballots on Friday under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic that is pushing the city-state’s economy towards its worst-ever recession, making saving jobs the focus of the election.
In power since independence in 1965, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is expected to carry Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to another comfortable, and probably final victory.
Clad in face shields, election officials enforced safe distancing rules and took voters’ temperatures as they entered polling booths, with the morning session mainly reserved for the elderly to prevent overcrowding.
“We voted PAP because we have seen what they have done for us over the years, but I understand that young people have their own opinions,” said retiree Foo, 75, who was accompanied by her 80-year-old husband. “We are old already, we don’t need much anymore,” she said.
Lee, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding leader, has held the premiership since 2004, but aged 68 he has already flagged his intention to step aside in coming years.
Seen as a measure of approval for both the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis and the next generation of leaders, the poll results will be closely watched as even small shifts in the PAP’s popularity can lead to major policy changes.
When concerns around immigration and jobs flared in 2011, the PAP polled a record-low 60% of the vote and tightened international hiring rules to address voters’ sensitivities.
As the Asian trade and finance hub emerges from lockdown to face its deepest recession, these concerns are once again to the fore.
“Issues I am concerned about are healthcare, job security and retirement,” said Malini Nathan, 42, a communications executive.
Sample counts are expected soon after polling closes at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT) with final results due in the early hours of Saturday.
A record 11 parties are contesting. Political analysts say opposition parties tend to pitch themselves as a check against the PAP’s dominance rather than offering a viable alternative government.
“This election has been great because more people are interested and getting involved in the discussions, especially on social media,” said Suhaila Shaikh, 27.
Singapore is not the first country in Asia to hold elections during the pandemic – South Korea held parliamentary elections in April – but its mandatory ballot comes under strict conditions.
There are just 2.65 million voters in Singapore, and election organisers are counting on a fast, regimented and hygienic vote to minimise infection risks.
KP Lim, 65, a retiree, however said he felt the election was a bit of a rush. “I won’t say that everything is stabilized. Everyone is still expecting a second wave.”
Since easing its lockdown last month, the number of new daily cases in Singapore crept back into double figures last week, excluding the migrant workers living in dormitories where infection rates have been far higher.
Voters are expected to spend no more than five minutes in a polling station, where they will self-scan identity cards, sanitise their hands and pull on disposable gloves before receiving a ballot paper.
The virus outbreak also constrained campaigning as candidates had to adhere to social distancing rules that limit groups to five, avoid shaking hands or fist bumping. Mass rallies – often attended by thousands – were banned.
Singapore has one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world and initially earned widespread praise for its efforts. But subsequent mass outbreaks in cramped migrant worker dormitories stained that early success, and persuaded the government to keep schools and businesses closed for longer.