20 May 2012

Unity and Reciprocity in Opposition Politics

The decision by everyone to let the Hougang by-election be contested by People's Action Party and The Workers' Party was a decision based on realism and practicality as much as an expression of unity.  Just 12 months ago in the general election, The Workers' Party won the contest there with 64.8 per cent of the valid vote.  It is inconceivable that any party other than The Workers' Party or perhaps People's Action Party will win the contest there this time.  Not only will a third party lose, but it will probably lose so badly that its election deposit of $13,500 will be forfeited.  Furthermore, if People's Action Party captures Hougang with less than half the valid vote, the third party will be a instant pariah to opposition supporters, unless it happens to receive more votes than The Workers' Party.

However, according to Mr Tan Jee Say, unity among opposition parties should not be a one-way street.  The Workers' Party should appreciate the gesture of political cooperation from other opposition parties and individuals and should reciprocate accordingly in the next general election — implying that The Workers' Party should not intrude into other opposition parties' territories.

This is short-sighted.  It will stymie the growth and development of the opposition.

Singapore is too small and no constituency is significantly or sufficiently different from another for any opposition party to differentiate itself from other opposition parties based on local issues.

Over time, no more than one or two opposition parties will gain stature and dominance.  The other opposition parties will remain peripheral participants in the political process; they will not win the middle ground (the swing vote) and they will not win any constituencies.

If the more successful opposition parties do not, or are not allowed to, participate in elections in constituencies that they had not previously contested, they will not grow.

If the peripheral opposition parties do not want to give way to the more successful opposition parties, three-cornered contests may become inevitable but these will hardly serve the cause of the opposition parties or their supporters.

The way forward is not blind reciprocity, but for opposition parties to be realistic about their chances at the ballot box and make way for another opposition party that has a better chance of winning.

Undoubtedly, this will be difficult because every party leader wants to run his own party and believes in his party's chances at the ballot box — not unlike a gambler's irrational optimism in a game of chance.  Some may even be satisfied with receiving, for example, one-quarter or one-third of the vote as an adequate validation of their philosophy and manifesto and service, perhaps waiting for the proverbial miracle.

That, unfortunately, is why the opposition parties will remain fragmented and weak and unable to form the next government.  Unless or until the ruling People's Action Party stumbles and self-destructs.

But that, unfortunately, is not the same as the opposition parties proving that they are good or good enough.


1. Mr Tan Jee Say was one of Singapore Democratic Party's candidates in Holland-Bukit Timah group representation constituency the 2011 general election.  They received 39.9 per cent of the valid vote there.  Mr Tan subsequently resigned from Singapore Democratic Party and was one of the four candidates who contested the presidential election later in the year.  He received 25.0 per cent of the valid vote.

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