SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's opposition parties will be stronger competitors in the next election, a top government minister was quoted as saying on Monday.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was appointed in August 2004, does not need to call an election until mid-2007.
But many observers expect elections to be called as soon as January or during the first quarter, after housing estate upgrading projects worth over S$1 billion were announced in the past six weeks.
Upgrading schemes are common ahead of parliamentary elections in Singapore.
Senior Minister and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong told the pro-government Straits Times that opposition parties have begun gearing up for an election earlier than they did previously and are "in a better shape than before".
"This time they are wiser, they are gearing up early for elections. So now I think competition will be tougher for PAP candidates," Goh was quoted as saying.
Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has dominated parliament in the 40 years since independence.
During the last election in 2001, the weak and fragmented opposition parties -- which were hoping to build on their four seats won in the 1997 poll -- won only two of the 84 seats in parliament; one for the Worker's Party and one for the Singapore Democratic Alliance.
Opposition politicians say they are denied a level playing field and that the election system is stacked against them.
"It's not as if we did not prepare early in previous elections," said Steve Chia, National Solidarity Party secretary-general and parliament member under a best-loser provision.
"But they (the PAP) keep gerrymandering and manipulating the election rules, so we can never be fully prepared."
Singapore opposition parties have frequently complained about the redrawing of electoral boundaries which is common ahead of elections.
They have been the most critical of the so-called Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) which group several single-seat wards into one larger constituency and have the effect of diluting opposition votes.
The PAP says the GRCs are meant to ensure that a minimum number of MPs will come from ethnic minorities, but the opposition says they find it hard to find enough candidates to run in the multi-seat wards.
The opposition parties have been quietly preparing for the upcoming election, organising weekly reach-out campaigns and recruiting new members.
Chia told Reuters that opposition parties have met to discuss possible cooperation in the next election but declined further comment.
Last week a Singapore newspaper said that opposition parties had agreed to avoid three-cornered fights in several constituencies and had agreed to contest all nine single-seat wards and at least six of the multi-seat wards in the next poll.
Goh told the paper he hoped the opposition would field candidates in his Marine Parade constituency, which has not been contested since 1992.
The PAP has not faced a real threat since 1988, which was the last election when the opposition contested more than half of the seats in parliament.
At the last walkover election, in November 2001, only 29 of the 84 seats were contested.