Wearing masks and plastic gloves, Singaporeans began voting Friday in a general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's long-governing party to power.
About 1,100 polling stations across the city-state were open at 8 a.m., with strict safety measures in place for Southeast Asia's first national election since the coronavirus pandemic began. Older voters were given priority in the early morning hours as protection against the virus, and people being treated for COVID-19 or under quarantine at home were not allowed to vote.
The health crisis and concerns over an economic recession are a bonanza for Lee's People's Action Party, with voters likely to opt for stability. It faces 10 small opposition parties that are contesting the 93 parliamentary seats mostly on a one-on-one basis against the PAP. The opposition has said it does not want to govern, but urged the 2.65 million eligible voters to reduce the PAP's overwhelming majority in parliament and deny it a “blank check.”
The PAP has dominated politics since 1959, when Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore's first prime minister and built the resource-poor city-state into one of the world's richest nations during 31 years in office. In 2015, the party won 69.9% of the total vote and 93% of parliamentary seats. But it has also been criticized for tight government control, media censorship and use of oppressive laws and civil lawsuits against dissidents.
Lee has also faced opposition from his estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who said the PAP had turned into an elitist party. The younger Lee joined an opposition party last month but is not running in the election. The prime minister has said the polls are about securing the country's future, not his family feud.
“Our economy has been badly hit, though the full economic impact of the outbreak is still ahead of us,” Lee said in a televised message late Thursday. “We need a strong and capable government. Not only to take decisive action to prevent another major outbreak, but also to save businesses and jobs, which is at the top of everyone’s minds.”
Singapore’s election follows polls in Mongolia last month and in South Korea in April, when governing parties in both countries scored resounding victories.
The polls come just weeks after the country emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling one of Asia’s worst virus outbreaks. The tiny nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, most of them foreign workers living in crowded dormitories that were overlooked in the early phase of its crisis management.
With the economy forecast to shrink this year by up to 7%, Lee's government has unveiled several economic assistance packages totaling nearly 100 billion Singapore dollars ($71.7 billion).
While coronavirus cases have mostly declined, new daily cases still top 100. The government says the elections can be held safely with the number of polling stations increased from 880 to 1,100 and other safety measures.
All voters are required to wear masks and be screened for fever and respiratory symptoms upon arrival. They must use hand sanitizer and disposable gloves when casting ballots and keep one meter (yard) away from others.
Voters are allocated a two-hour time band to cast their ballots to reduce crowding. People aged 65 and above receive priority in voting during the first four hours. Election officials wear full personal protective gear and polling booths are sanitized every half hour.
COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine at home were not allowed to vote. Polls will be open 12 hours and results are expected to begin arriving late Friday.