Workers' Party calls for ground rules on election campaigning during Covid-19 pandemic to be published promptly

Election officers setting up the polling station at Pei Chun Public School, on Sept 10, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE
A photo from Sept 11, 2015, showing voters at the polling station in Cantonment Primary School. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Workers' Party (WP) has called on the Government to publish ground rules on how political parties should campaign if a general election is to be held amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement issued on Thursday (May 28), WP said there has been a "distinct lack of clarity" as to how campaigning would be modified in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Several ministers have made vague and unspecific comments since March that campaign methods would need to be modified. However, despite the party's calls, there has been no definitive announcement by the Elections Department (ELD) on these anticipated changes," WP said.

It added that political parties risk squandering resources due to this uncertainty and that the window of time to find suitable suppliers for relevant services was narrowing.

For example, the party noted that while it has been said that streaming of videos may be employed during the next election, it is not known if there will be regulations governing the content and format of these videos.

WP said: "While Singaporeans continue to focus on overcoming Covid-19, general elections are an essential feature of our democracy that should not be taken lightly.

"Contesting parties should know the ground rules as soon as possible, in order to be well-prepared to offer Singaporean voters their best efforts at the polls."

The call comes a day after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat hinted during an interview that polls could be called soon.

When asked whether Singaporeans will have to wait until the third and final phase of resuming economic activity before going to the polls, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said that the elections were coming nearer by the day and Singapore had to be prepared for them.

The sooner the general election is held, he said, "the earlier we can rally everybody together to deal with these very significant challenges ahead". Singapore's next general election must take place by April 14, 2021.

Separately on Thursday, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also addressed the issue of election campaigning during the pandemic and made several suggestions, including extending the official campaigning period to 21 days, instead of the current nine.

"Already, mass rallies will not be a big feature (if they are allowed at all) during the hustings. This puts the opposition at an even greater disadvantage," the party said.

Urging the Government to give contesting parties "equitable access to the electorate", the SDP also called on the authorities to provide all parties daily access to radio programmes and television channels, to reserve space in newspapers for parties to publish their manifestos and ideas, and to allow parties to address residents at food centres, void decks and common areas.

"Now more than ever, Singaporeans need a fair, transparent and democratic system of governance which only a fair, transparent and democratic GE can bring about," it said.

Singapore People's Party (SPP) chairman Jose Raymond said that aside from the political parties, the public also needs to be made aware of changes to how the next general election will be conducted, for example, whether voting will be staggered or whether extra precautions will be taken.

"There needs to be absolute clarity, and it needs to be made public expeditiously," he told The Straits Times.

On Tuesday, a law allowing special, temporary arrangements to be implemented if the next election takes place amid the coronavirus pandemic came into operation.

Passed into law earlier this month, the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Act allows some voters who are under stay-home notice to vote under special arrangements, and lets aspiring candidates authorise a representative to file nomination papers for them if they are unable or unfit to do so.

During the debate on the draft law, Nominated MP Walter Theseira said safe campaigning regulations under Covid-19 should be defined well in advance of the polls, while fellow NMP Anthea Ong wondered if a Covid-19 election would run the risk of an inequitable playing field in terms of campaigning.

In response, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, who spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said that election campaigning rules were outside the scope of the Bill and that the ELD would share guidelines for campaigning in due course, taking into account the Covid-19 situation then.

He said: "The Elections Department's practice has been to issue an advisory on campaigning guidelines, together with other relevant authorities like the police and MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs).

"The Elections Department will also work with MOH (Ministry of Health) on the health and safety aspects of campaigning before issuing its advisory. This will be done with sufficient time for political parties and aspiring candidates to prepare."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.