Friday, May 13, 2011

What to make of that 6.5 percentage-point dip

Some say PAP did well given climate, but others say slide is just beginning

By Zakir Hussain, Political Correspondent

LAST Saturday's vote swing of 6.5 percentage points against the People's Action Party (PAP) took the ruling party's overall vote share to its lowest since Independence: 60.1 per cent.

For the first time, a PAP slate was defeated in a group representation constituency (GRC), by a team led by Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang. WP also kept its stronghold Hougang single-member constituency (SMC).

But some said the results were not unexpected, given the groundswell of feeling that erupted during the election campaign over PAP policies in recent years, in areas like housing, immigration, transport and health care.

So how does one interpret the loss of one GRC and the 6.5 percentage-point vote swing? Is it or is it not a big deal?

There are differing views.

On the one hand, some think the PAP did well in scoring above 60 per cent. Many had predicted that the PAP's share of valid votes would fall below 60 per cent, or even hover around the mid-50s. Many predicted the loss of more than one GRC plus a handful of single seats.

In the end, it lost one GRC and did not win back Hougang, but won back Potong Pasir SMC.

Proponents of the theory that 60.1 per cent is a good result point to the previous post-1965 low of 61 per cent in 1991. They argue that the PAP has done well in managing to retain its vote share over 20 years, despite the emergence of a much stronger opposition, the coming to maturity of a more questioning electorate, and having to operate in a more challenging global environment.

Many had predicted back in the early 1990s that the PAP's vote share would dip below 60 per cent. This was because of the downward slide in votes from 1984, when a slew of unpopular policies sparked a 12.8 percentage-point swing against the PAP to 64.8 per cent. Two opposition MPs were elected. In 1988, the PAP's share dipped 63.2 per cent, with no further loss of seats. In 1991, it was 61 per cent, with four seats to the opposition.

Then, in 1997, the PAP managed to get 65 per cent. In 2001, it got an anomalous 75.3 per cent, when voters rallied behind the ruling party in the wake of the Sept 11 terror attacks and a global downturn.

In 2006, then PAP chairman Tony Tan said before the election that a vote share of 60 to 65 per cent would be 'a very good result'. It eventually got 66.6 per cent in 47 out of 84 seats contested. This was widely viewed as a good result.

In this election, PAP leaders declined to state publicly the vote share they were aiming for. Nor would they discuss what they would consider a good result.

In the last six elections since 1984, the PAP scored between 61 and 66.6 per cent (with the exception of the 2001 result). This year's result of 60.1 per cent is thus nearly within range, albeit at the low end. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself considers the result a 'clear mandate'.

On the other side of the argument are those who say the 6.5 percentage-point swing should worry the PAP very much.

To set things in context, a further slide of 6.5 percentage points in the next election would see the loss of East Coast and Marine Parade GRCs, and three SMCs: Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat and Punggol East.

Some observers believe the slide from 66.6 to 60.1 per cent is just the beginning of a new downward range.

There are several reasons for this. First, more voters will get to vote in the future. For the first time in 48 years, almost every eligible voter got to vote this year. A total of 2.06 million votes were cast, nearly double the 1.12 million in 2006.

The 1991, 1997 and 2001 elections were in effect by-elections, with the PAP returned to power on Nomination Day, and with less than half the electorate able to vote. From now on, it is likely that all seats will be contested.

Usually, more seats being contested favours the PAP, as some opposition parties will 'try their luck' with candidates who are clearly not ready to stand, or to induct newbies. Their PAP opponents will usually get a better vote share than the national average.

But with the opposition now being able to attract enough candidates of high calibre, the opposite is likely to happen.

In this General Election, bigger constituencies with more voters were more pro-opposition than the national average.

Out of 14 contested GRCs, seven did worse than the national average of 60.1 per cent for the PAP. In these bottom seven GRCs, the PAP got 55.2 per cent.

Among the other seven, one (Holland-Bukit Timah) got 60.1 per cent. The other six did better, including PM Lee's own Ang Mo Kio (69.3 per cent).

Some of the biggest vote swings against the PAP took place in GRCs. In Tampines, with 137,532 voters, the swing was 11.3 percentage points - from 68.5 to 57.2 per cent. In Aljunied, with 143,148 voters, the PAP's vote share slide 10.8 percentage points from 56.1 per cent in 2006 to 45.3 per cent. In East Coast, with 120,324 voters, the swing was 9.1 percentage points - from 63.9 to 54.8 per cent.

Having more seats contested and more voters eligible to vote is more likely to cause the PAP vote share to dip, not rise.

Another factor works against the PAP: demography. There are now 1.1 million voters - or one in two - born after 1965. It was one in three in 2001 and a negligible minority in 1991. In the next election, the PAP will be fighting for support from a majority born after 1965, who do not share that special bond with the political party that brought Singapore independence and led it to material wealth.

Thus, the question that arises is whether 60.1 per cent will become the upper limit for the PAP's vote share in future. Will GE 2016 see a slide below 60 per cent, and to the mid-50s after that?

Much depends on whether the PAP can win the hearts and minds of voters all over again, the way it did in the early decades of Singapore's history. It has promised to transform itself, to listen more, and to be more responsive to ground concerns. It has promised to review housing affordability, beef up the transport infrastructure, and slow down immigration.

After the slide of 1984, it took the PAP three elections to halt, then reverse, the trend of decline.

Opponents underestimate the PAP, in power for over 50 years, at their own peril. But the forces pressing against it - a stronger opposition and a changing electorate with weaker bonds with the PAP - appear stronger than in 1984, or in 1991.

Three elections is a very long time. But, at least for GE 2016, it will probably not be so easy for the PAP to regain ground it has lost in this election.