27 Apr 2006

Singapore's opposition to contest more than half of parliament seats+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)SINGAPORE, April 27_(Kyodo) _ Singapore's opposition parties on Thursday declared their intention to contest more than half of the seats in Singapore's May 6 parliamentary election for the first time in nearly two decades, challenging Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's bid for a strong leadership mandate.

The opposition parties filed nomination papers to contest 47 of the 84 seats in Parliament, marking the first time since 1988 that the ruling People's Action Party has not been automatically returned to power on nomination day.

"We don't have a majority who have been returned unopposed, so we are fighting this election to decide who will form the next government of Singapore," Lee told reporters.

The PAP is expected to win the election on polling day as it has done at every election since the country's independence in 1965.

Most people in the wealthy city-state see the PAP as the backbone of Singapore's economic success and prefer political and economic stability rather than change.

The opposition parties have made it their clarion call for Singaporeans to vote more opposition members into parliament to check the ruling party's overbearing power. They will contest all nine single-seat wards and half of the 14 multi-seat wards, including Lee's constituency.

Lee, who is facing his first electoral battle since taking over from Goh Chok Tong in a planned leadership succession in 2004, is seeking a clear mandate for his leadership.

Noting that the Workers' Party challenging his constituency has got the largest number of candidates among the opposition parties, he said, "We are taking them seriously...we are eager to fight them."

Most other top party leaders, including Lee's 82-year old father, elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, and Goh, who has been a senior minister in the Cabinet since he stepped down from the premiership, will retain their parliamentary seats as they are uncontested.

The move to contest more seats reflects a newfound confidence among the larger opposition parties, which have recently managed to attract more young, successful professionals to join their ranks despite being hampered by government-imposed restrictions on public speeches by opposition politicians and Internet debates.

One positive factor that has helped the opposition this time is the government's unprecedented move to release changes in electoral boundaries about a month earlier instead of at the last minute, thus giving the opposition more time to prepare. It also tinkered much less with the boundaries.

The ruling party won a landslide victory in the previous election in 2001, when it was under Goh, sweeping 75 percent of valid votes and all but two of the 84 parliamentary seats.

PAP leaders have said they would be happy to win at least 65 percent of the vote in this election and to wrestle back the two opposition-held seats.

"This election is really about PM Lee Hsien Loong and his new team and whether the electorate will go for the 'staying together, moving ahead' slogan," said Antonio Rappa, assistant professor of political science at the state-run National University of Singapore.

"If he can get at least 68 percent, it would be a super strong signal from the electorate that they are very confident of his leadership ability in the future. This would mean an increased likelihood of him continuing beyond the next three to four elections," he said.

Diane Mauzy, a political science lecturer at Canada's University of British Columbia, who has researched and written on Singapore politics, said "The PAP would be delighted with 70 percent or more of the votes. Sixty-five percent they could live with, but were it down to 60 percent, I think the PAP would be shaken."

The ruling party and the opposition camp will hold intense campaign rallies over nine days until polling day. Lee has chosen to take advantage of the current economic upswing by calling for an early election even though the five-year term of Parliament was not due to expire until the middle of next year.

The two main opposition groups -- the Workers' Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, which groups four parties -- hope to defend their respective seats and also wrench one or two more seats from the PAP in the hope of carving a larger presence in Parliament.

Singapore Democratic Party, a small party that is unrelated to the SDA, has been threatened with a libel suit from top ruling party leaders in the last few days for certain allegedly defamatory remarks in the party's newsletter on a scandal involving Singapore's largest charitable organization that has shocked the nation.

The National Kidney Foundation scandal, involving the abuse of charity money, is one of the issues that the opposition hopes to raise, along with perennial bread-and-butter concerns such as the high cost of living, subsidies for medical care and jobs for displaced older workers.


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