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The gloves come on: virus-hit Singapore votes
  • | | July 10, 2020 10:02 AM
Singaporeans will vote in a general election Friday with a raft of safety measures in place as the city-state emerges from a major coronavirus outbreak that swept through migrant worker dormitories.

Voters will wear masks and gloves, and go through temperature checks before casting their ballots, following a short nine-day campaign that took place mostly online as rallies were banned to reduce infection risks.

The People's Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore for six decades, is assured of victory but faces an opposition with some popular candidates backed by the estranged brother of the country's premier.

The affluent financial hub saw large virus outbreaks in dorms 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", although officials insist they have done enough to ensure the 2.65 million eligible voters can cast their ballots safely.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called COVID-19 "the crisis of a generation" and sought to project his party as a force for stability that can guide the country through tough times.

"Do not undermine a system that has served you well," he said on the campaign trail.

Trading hub Singapore has been hit hard by the pandemic, and the government has rolled out nearly Sg$100 billion ($72 billion) in stimulus packages.

Analysts say holding a poll 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.

- Voters 'plugged in' -

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 one of a small host of opposition groups taking on the PAP in the country of 5.7 million, 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.

The government's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a key topic among voters.

After initially keeping the virus in check, Singapore saw major outbreaks in the foreign worker dorms. It has reported over 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 livestreamed speeches.

"Voters have been very plugged in," Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, told AFP.

"It has been an election which has captured the political imagination of many."

The poll is also a step in a carefully orchestrated transition of power to a new generation of leaders, with the 68-year-old prime minister expected to hand over his post to a hand-picked successor at some point afterwards.

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