The news this morning is that all the active opposition parties got together last night (Wednesday 2 March 2011) to carve up the newly-announced electoral divisions for the upcoming general election. While no formal press statement was made after the meeting, the media reported that casual comments by some who attended suggested that “about eighty percent” of the constituencies had been decided, leaving only a few more to be sorted out at the follow-up meeting, expected this Saturday.
The aim of these all-opposition meetings is to ensure that opposition parties will not find themselves competing against each other in the same constituency, avoiding “three-cornered” fights.
There is something horribly anti-competitive about it. If these were businesses in the marketplace, any competition authority would have something to say about this kind of collusion.
Of course it makes sense from the parties’ point of view, but is it in voters’ interest?
Singapore’s opposition parties generally have limited resources — manpower, funds and time. It would be a waste to be expending them fighting each other than fighting the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Moreover, there is a risk that if any candidate fails to garner at least 12.5 percent of the votes cast in any constituency, he would lose his election deposit of S$13,500 (I have not verified if this quantum still applies for the coming election).
But this logic is based on an assumption which, strangely, no one has yet interrogated: that there is a relatively inelastic pool of voters who would not want to vote for the PAP and that they would vote for whichever opposition party happened to be standing in their constituency. You see this assumption at work whenever someone talks about not “splitting” the vote.
You see this again whenever someone calls for “opposition unity”. Unity for what? It can only mean unity to throw out the PAP. Is that all that voters want? Is that even chief of what they want? I don’t think so. How simplistic, how unrealistic, can one get?
If this model of the Singapore voter were true, then I think Singaporeans would be an immature lot. I’d almost be tempted to say we get the government we deserve.
From what I have seen, opposition parties are not interchangeable, and even if there are days when one is frustrated with the PAP, not all of the other parties are always preferable to the PAP.
Over the last few years I have argued on this site that opposition parties should rely less on anger against the PAP for votes and do more to articulate their convictions and policy directions. I have long said that so long as they rely on anti-PAP frustration, there is a ceiling — and a low one at that — to how many votes they will ever get. I am pleased that during the last few years, opposition parties have slowly moved in the direction I advocated — though I don’t know whether whatever I wrote had anything to do with it. More likely, it’s got to do with the communication opportunities presented by new media.
But the trend to differentiate themselves by articulating convictions and policy directions can only mean that they will become less and less interchangeable. I may like Party K and Party L for their positions; I may not like Party M and Party N. So, come election time, why should I be denied the opportunity to choose among K, L, M and N?
We know the reason: there is the fear that no opposition party is strong enough or attractive enough to secure an outright victory against multiple opponents, one or two localised areas, e.g. Hougang, excepted. There’s a fear that even if support for the PAP softens to, say, 48 percent, two opposition parties (let’s say K and M) fighting it out in the same constituency may find themselves with 20 percent and 32 percent respectively, and under out first-past-the-post electoral system, the PAP will secure the seat despite not getting an outright majority.
But why shouldn’t they? The PAP would have more support than either K or M. That’s democracy, isn’t it?
Let’s not assume too quickly that if voters in that constituency had only been presented with a candidate from M, all those who would otherwise vote for K would also vote for M. Rubbish. That’s not how people behave. Even if three out of four K supporters would gave their vote to to M instead of the PAP, that would still leave M with only 32+15=47 percent of the vote. PAP would get 53 percent and quite legitimately deserve the seat.
In fact, one could argue that it is the worse result. There are different degrees of legitimacy and the PAP winning the seat with 53 percent is a lot more so than winning it by 48 percent. In other words, by my example, anti-PAP folks score a moral victory in the first scenario (K and M holding the PAP down to the 48 percent win) but not in the second (PAP defeats M 53:47).
But then, I don’t really want to be speaking of the upcoming contest as one between the PAP and the anti-PAP. I’ve already said that is a simplistic way of looking at the political landscape.
I think the more important point is that democracy is about choice and I hardly consider it obvious that limiting voters’ choices by assigning constituencies to one opposition party each, expands that choice.