14 January 2013

Punggol East By-Election — Losing The Battle And The War

When Michael Palmer resigned his Parliamentary seat of Punggol East, various opposition parties salivated at the prospect of contesting the by-election and perhaps capturing the seat.

Any politician worth his salt has to be optimistic, of course.

But he or she should also be realistic.

It is almost certain that People's Action Party will win in a multi-cornered by-election.

This leads to the question: which opposition party should contest the by-election?

Every interested opposition party will have its slew of reasons why it is the right or best party to contest.

Democracy is about giving the people a choice.

We (the respective opposition parties) have good candidates.

We have the best chance of winning.

We have good, sound policies.

The Workers' Party is too bland; we will spice up Parliamentary debates.

WP already has several Members of Parliament, and it should give us an opportunity to have at least one Member of Parliament.

If WP wins the by-election, it will have another Member of Parliament and very soon people will consider it to be the lead opposition party (a role that we want for ourselves until we form the government, but we can't say this to anyone).  If both we and WP contest, PAP will almost certainly retain Punggol East (we can't win other than in a straight fight but this will not happen, and we can't say this to anyone).

But these opposition parties are deceiving themselves, and they know it.

And they have lost sight of their number one objective.

Why The Workers' Party Should Contest
It is logical for WP to be the sole opposition party to contest the Punggol East by-election.

First, WP contested Punggol East in the GE2011.

Second, WP received 41.0 per cent of the valid vote in Punggol East in GE2011.  Even though that was a three-cornered contest, WP received a higher percentage of the valid vote there than the highest percentage received by Singapore Democratic Party, The Reform Party or Singapore Democratic Alliance (these three opposition parties, other than WP, that have expressed an interest in contesting in Punggol East) in other constituencies, all of which were straight contests with PAP.

Third, WP received 46.6 per cent of the valid vote in the constituencies in which it contested in GE2011.  This is significantly higher than SDP's 36.8 per cent, RP's 31.8 per cent and SDA's 30.1 per cent.  Notably, neither of the two opposition parties that received the second and third highest percentage of the valid vote in GE2011 — Singapore People's Party with 41.4 per cent and National Solidarity Party with 39.6 per cent — is contesting the Punggol East by-election.

Fourth, WP knows Punggol East better than any other opposition party.  Neither SDP nor RP has established person-to-person contact with the residents of Punggol East or, if they have, they started recently.

Implications of a Multi-Cornered By-Election
PAP will almost certainly win Punggol East constituency in a multi-cornered by-election.  A priceless opportunity for the opposition to wrest a parliamentary seat will be squandered.

If the opposition parties contesting in the by-election together receive more than 50 per cent of the valid vote but lose the by-election to PAP, they (the contesting opposition parties) will have done a great disfavour to those people of Punggol East who want an opposition Member of Parliament to represent them.  They have disregarded those people's wishes due to their own selfish and myopic intentions.

If the opposition parties contesting in the by-election together receive more than 50 per cent of the valid vote but lose the by-election to PAP, the parties — other than the opposition party receiving the highest percentage of the valid vote — that caused this happen will face tremendous public opprobrium, and this opprobrium will hang onto them like a disease through to GE2016, negatively affecting their prospects.

The ill will resulting from a multi-cornered contest will make it extremely difficult for the opposition parties to agree on where they should contest in GE2016 and may lead to multi-cornered contests, which will benefit PAP.

If the opposition parties cannot even agree on a straight fight with PAP, the public may justifiably have serious concerns about voting for them in GE2016.  What will happen if they (these erstwhile opposition parties) secure a majority of the parliamentary seats — will they be able to form a coalition and work together to govern the country or will the coalition fracture and break down from constant threats, bickering and dissension?  Fearing such a messy outcome, the middle ground that is pivotal to electoral success may decide to stay with the "devil" they know than the "devil" they don't, and vote PAP.

If the frenzied interest is not mere play acting or posturing, the future does not bode well for the opposition parties.  As National University of Singapore Associate Professor Bilveer Singh said, "What is happening in the opposition camp demonstrates the general lack of unity and the main reason why the opposition has been unable to make strides in Singapore politics since 1965 — they divide themselves and give PAP the advantage."

If the opposition parties cannot set aside their own interest for the broader good of all the opposition parties and the people of Punggol East (at least those who want an opposition Member of Parliament), can they set aside their own interest for the broader good of the people of Singapore should they eventually form the government (as they and some people hope)?

Conclusion
SDP, RP, SDA and any other opposition party considering contesting the Punggol East by-election should reflect carefully.

This is the time for maturity and unity, not self and mutual destruction with a lose-lose outcome that will condemn them to be opposition parties for a long time to come.

Which will prevail in the end — common sense for the common good or irrational and impatient ambition, unrealistic aspirations, selfishness and outsized egos?

The fact that the Punggol East seat was vacated after PAP MP Michael Palmer resigned over an extramarital affair meant the opposition parties started with an advantage.  But due to strategic blunders, the by-election has now become an issue of opposition unity, according to A/P Singh.

If the circus does not stop soon, the opposition parties will lose both the battle and the war.  Aren't their leaders smart enough to see this?  Or are they so blinded by their self interest?

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