Singaporean officials began counting ballots Friday after a general election held under the shadow of a coronavirus outbreak, which saw long queues at polling stations and a rare extension of voting hours.
Voters put on masks and gloves and had to observe social distancing rules, in an election held as the city-state emerges from a lengthy virus lockdown.
Polls had been due to close at 8:00 pm (12:00 GMT) but the safety measures led to long waits and prompted authorities to extend voting by two hours — sparking fierce criticism from the opposition.
The People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore for six decades, is assured of victory but faces an opposition with some popular candidates and backed by the estranged brother of the premier.
The affluent financial hub had seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown, the government decided to call the poll.
The opposition has accused the PAP of being ‘irresponsible’, but officials insisted they have done enough to ensure the 2.65 million eligible voters can cast their ballots safely.
The extension of polling station hours was the first time such a step had been taken in Singapore, where voting is compulsory, and officials insisted it was to ensure everyone could cast their ballots.
But opposition groups were furious, with the Singapore Democratic Party calling it ‘highly irregular’, adding that some of their polling agents had to leave before voting ended.
‘This will leave some of our polling stations unattended when the boxes are sealed and may render the results questionable,’ it said in a statement.
Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, in charge since 2004 but now likely heading for his final term as premier, has called COVID-19 ‘the crisis of a generation’ and sought to project his party as a force for stability.
Trading hub Singapore has been hit hard by the pandemic and is forecast to be heading for its worst recession since independence in 1965.
Analysts say holding a vote now is a gamble and, with opinion polls banned during election campaigns in the tightly regulated country, it is not clear if the health crisis will boost or dent the government’s support.
While the government’s rivals are weak — they won only six parliamentary seats at the last election — a move by premier Lee's brother, Lee Hsien Yang, to join the opposition may help them.
The sibling is locked in a long-running feud with the prime minister over the legacy of their father, Singapore's late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, and has become a member of the Progress Singapore Party, although he is not running for office himself.
‘Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore,’ Lee Hsien Yang said in a Facebook post this week.
‘It is not 'rocking the boat' but saving our boat from sinking.’
His party is among a host of opposition groups taking on the PAP, with 93 parliamentary seats being contested.
The PAP, which oversaw Singapore’s transformation into one of the world's wealthiest societies, enjoys solid support but has been accused of arrogance, gerrymandering and targeting its rivals.
During the campaign, several media outlets were hit with a controversial law against misinformation after carrying comments made by an opposition figure on the virus outbreak.
They were ordered to place warnings next to the comments, saying they contained false information.
Job security and the government's response to the pandemic have been key topics among voters.
After initially keeping the virus in check, Singapore saw major outbreaks in the foreign worker dorms. It has reported more than 45,000 infections, including 26 deaths, and is slowly emerging from a two-month lockdown.
While on-the-ground campaigning was limited to candidates meeting voters in small groups, the online campaign has been lively, with thousands watching live-streamed speeches.
The poll is also a step in a carefully orchestrated transition of power to a new generation of leaders, with the prime minister expected to hand over to a hand-picked successor at some point afterwards.
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