Singapore could see more three-cornered fights in the 2020 General Election, with a record 12 opposition parties looking to enter the fray. As of yesterday, overlapping claims have yet to be resolved in at least four constituencies.
Both the Singapore People's Party (SPP) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have expressed interest in contesting the four-member Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, which a joint SPP-DPP team fought and lost in 2015 against the incumbent People's Action Party (PAP).
The five-member Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC could see the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), which contested it in 2015, and the new Peoples Voice (PV) vying for votes.
At least two SMCs could also see three-cornered fights, with the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) coming up against the DPP in Marymount SMC and the Reform Party (RP) in the new Yio Chu Kang SMC respectively.
The PSP and RP had earlier clashed over West Coast GRC, which includes the Ayer Rajah ward where PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock was the PAP MP for six terms. Early yesterday morning, the RP, which contested West Coast in 2011 and 2015, said it would step aside after negotiations with the PSP.
The ruling PAP is contesting all 93 seats. Its pitch to voters is that it needs a strong mandate to be able to tackle the big challenges Singapore faces amid the pandemic-induced crisis.
Contests involving multiple parties have tended to benefit the ruling party, as the opposition vote ends up being split, observers note.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, said multi-cornered fights are inevitable, especially in single-member constituencies, given the unprecedented number of parties contesting the election. But they are unlikely to happen in group representation constituencies, which require more resources to contest, he added.
"Even though there are a couple of GRCs with potential multi-cornered fights, my sense is once Nomination Day comes, the GRCs will likely be one-to-one fights."
He felt the larger opposition parties were unlikely to pit themselves against one another.
Associate Professor Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department agreed that three-or even four-cornered fights are inevitable. He said: "The entrance of PSP onto the scene, as well as other new parties like PV and Red Dot United (RDU), has made the ground crowded and they all need to find a 'chair' somewhere to sit."
He noted that the much-hyped notion of an opposition coalition akin to Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan never materialised. Conflicts over ideologies and issues doomed this effort from the start, he added.
Political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong noted that even without an official alliance, the fact that the customary pre-election horse-trading talks between the opposition parties did not happen this year is a sign that opposition unity is fraying. But he said this is mostly due to the growing divergence between larger opposition parties and smaller parties, which are "getting even smaller". "There is, frankly, no reason for the larger parties to have to negotiate with the smaller parties," said Mr Loke, who recently authored a book on the history of the opposition in Singapore titled The First Wave.
He said the opposition's earlier experiment with coalition-building, in the form of the SDA led by Mr Chiam See Tong, had "failed miserably" in the early 2000s. "The idea was consigned to the grave in 2011, when the Workers' Party (WP) won its first GRC. That vindicated the WP's strategy of going it alone."
Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said opposition parties could be holding off on having a conference for as long as possible while they wait for the PAP to announce where it is placing its candidates.
"There is not that much time if campaign collateral has to be produced, so I expect this to take place in the next day or two, if at all," she said. "It will be quite significant if no such meeting takes place. We will most definitely be in new territory with regard to opposition politics in Singapore if that is so."
Dr Mustafa pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as one reason the usual opposition pow-wow could not be conducted in person this year. But he said the larger and more established opposition parties have likely been negotiating behind the scenes to avoid three-cornered fights - at least among themselves.
Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from NUS' political science department agreed, adding that three-cornered fights seem more likely to happen between smaller parties.
"The WP and, to a lesser degree, the SDP are more established. If they do not appear in three-cornered fights, then there may be recognition from the other parties that they would lose badly in multi-cornered contests," he said.
Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University's School of Law said political parties exist to contest elections. They risk becoming irrelevant and may never recover if they fail to contest an election, he said.
But he believed overlapping claims will likely be resolved come Nomination Day. Although there has not been a "multilateral" pow-wow, parties have been negotiating in a "bilateral" fashion, said Prof Tan, a former Nominated MP.
"They will resolve the conflicts because they recognise that the Singaporean voter is savvy and the party that finishes third or lower will likely lose its deposit. It's not a small sum and that's not a price that some candidates and parties are prepared to pay, in addition to the reputational damage done."
The election deposit has been set at $13,500 per candidate, which is forfeited if the candidate or team fails to win at least 12.5 per cent of the votes.
In 2015, there were three SMCs that saw three-cornered fights. Of those, two involved independent candidates while the third, MacPherson, saw a contest between the PAP, the WP and the National Solidarity Party (NSP). Both independent candidates and the NSP's Cheo Chai Chen, who garnered just 215 votes (0.82 per cent) in MacPherson, lost their $14,500 deposits.
Prof Tan said there was also the possibility that the lack of coordination could result in some seats going uncontested, allowing the PAP to have walkovers instead of multi-cornered fights.
Another reason three-cornered fights are increasingly likely is that older opposition cooperation tactics, such as banking on the so-called "by-election effect", are no longer relevant, the observers said.
The strategy, employed by Mr Chiam in 1991, involves opposition parties agreeing to contest fewer than half of the available seats in total. Like in a by-election, the logic goes, returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day means voters would be less skittish about supporting the opposition as there is no risk of inadvertently voting the PAP out.
Prof Singh, Dr Koh and Mr Loke agreed that the strategy has been irrelevant since 1997 when the PAP started using a more local, municipal approach and tying estate upgrading to voter support.
Prof Tan suggested that the opposition could move towards a nuanced strategy based on a similar line of thinking.
Most parties are aware that, given the challenges posed to Singapore by the Covid-19 pandemic, voters are more likely to support the tried-and-tested PAP, he said. As a result, the SDP's call to deny the PAP its two-thirds majority may not sit well with voters, for example.
Instead, if the WP adopts a moderate approach by contesting fewer than 31 seats, that sends a signal to voters that the PAP will not lose its two-thirds majority, even if the WP wins every seat it contests, said Prof Tan.
"I think that would go down much better with voters," he said.
With so many parties vying for seats across the board, however, voters would have to weigh up the chances that some seats, or even GRCs, might also be won by other opposition parties, thereby resulting in a weakened ruling party, with some key ministers or potential office holders being lost in the process. The PAP will, no doubt, seek to convince voters that such an outcome would hamper the country's ability to deal with the big issues it has to grapple with in the face of the health and economic crises unleashed by Covid-19.