The Workers’ Party pulled off a great victory in Aljunied group representation constituency, taking it with 54.7 percent of local valid votes cast. Despite boundary changes that took a Workers’ Party-friendly precinct away and the grafting on of another area relatively new to the party, they still managed to secure a vote swing of 10.8 percent from their 2006 general election result in Aljunied.
In so doing, it demonstrated the importance of long-term retail politics. It would seem that unless an opposition party is prepared to work the ground for years, it cannot realistically expect victory.
Sylvia Lim for example, has worked Aljunied ward for eight years, visiting the area fortnightly even when elections were far away.
I will come back to what I think this election shows up as ingredients of success further down, after a brief discussion of the overall results.
There was a vote swing of 6.5 percent against the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the general election just concluded (Polling Day: 7 May 2011), which is at about the top of the 3 to 6 percent range that analysts, including myself, had predicted. The PAP garnered 66.6 percent of valid votes cast in 2006, but only 60.1 percent this time.
In my earlier post Will the morning after see 86:1? I wrote:
opposition victories in two or three GRCs become good possibilities should the overall PAP vote share fall to 56 percent
The bottom line is this. Unless overall PAP vote share falls to 60 percent or less, we cannot expect significant opposition gains, least of all in GRCs.
‘GRC’ stands for group representation constituency.
And this is exactly what happened. At 60.1 percent of valid local votes cast, the PAP’s vote-share was just at the tipping point, and we saw one GRC fall. If it had dipped a further four percentage points to 56 percent, East Coast GRC would also be vulnerable (Workers’ Party scored 45.2 percent there).
As for single-member constituencies, I wrote:
If the PAP’s overall vote share hovers at or slightly below 60 percent, perhaps four SMCs will go over.
‘SMC’ stands for single-member constituency.
On the face of it, I was wrong. Only Hougang went to the opposition. However, Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat were extremely close, with opposition vote shares at 49.6 percent and 49.0 percent respectively. It was a matter of luck that these two did not tip over as well, with victory and defeat separated by only 114 votes in Potong Pasir and and 402 votes in Joo Chiat.
For future reference, here is a table of the results, by constituencies:
The row for Tanjong Pagar is blank because this 5-man GRC was uncontested.
The opposition’s worst performance was in Hong Kah North SMC, where the Singapore People’s Party’s (SPP) Sin Kek Tong got only 29.4 percent. The second-worst was Radin Mas SMC, where the National Solidarity Party’s (NSP) Yip Yew Weng got 32.9 percent.
However, the worst individual result was the SDA’s Secretary-General Desmond Lim, who found himself in a three-cornered fight with the Workers’ Party and the PAP in Punggol East SMC. Lim got only 4.5 percent, thus losing his election deposit.
That the Workers’ Party’s Lee Li Lian obtained nearly ten times the number of votes Lim got points to the importance of party branding and messaging, which I will touch on below.
The next table shows the results grouped by opposition parties:
Improvement from 2006 by party
Did all opposition parties enjoy a vote-swing in their favour equally? No. Some parties did better than others, as the next table shows. Here, you’ll see each party’s vote shares (2011 versus 2006) in the areas it contested.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was the most improved. But was this mostly the effect of contesting in Holland-Bukit-Timah this time when it did not contest in this constituency in 2006? Not really. If we look at those constituencies it contested in both 2006 and 2011, its improvement was still remarkable.
In Bukit Panjang SMC, the SDP increased its vote-share by 11.3 percentage points from 22.8 percent to 33.7 percent in 2011. In Sembawang GRC, the party increased its vote-share by 12.8 percentage points from 23.3 percent to 36.1 percent at this election.
The Workers’ Party improved its vote-share by a respectable 8.3 percent in the constituencies it contested.
The picture is rather mixed for the spin-offs from the 2006 Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). Of the spin-offs, the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) did best improvement-wise, though I’d say its 8.9 percentage point improvement over the SDA’s in 2006 may be less than it seems. After all, Chiam See Tong himself polled 55.8 percent in Potong Pasir SMC that year. And you would also have noticed that Sin Kek Tong, who did poorly in Hongkah North at this election was also from this party.
The Reform Party is new and was not yet formed in 2006.
Strong candidates are important
The positive effect of strong candidates can be seen in the results of the Workers’ Party and, in its own way, in that of the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
Where the Workers’ Party as a whole had an improvement in vote-share of 8.3 percent, in Aljunied it climbed 10.8 percent. Aljunied was where the party fielded its A-team that included well-known party leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim, top corporate finance lawyer Chen Show Mao and star speaker Pritam Singh.
Look closely at the NSP and you can see the same effect. The party’s best constituency performance was in Marine Parade where Nicole Seah captured the imagination of netizens. However, she and the party was also helped by widespread revulsion against the PAP’s Tin Pei Ling in the same ward. In its reverse way, this proves the same point — the importance of good candidates.
Then of course, there is Chiam See Tong. Despite age and the effects of a stroke, he worked his magic not only in his old ward of Potong Pasir where his wife almost won, and in Bishan Toa Payoh — a new area for him — where he led his GRC team to a respectable 43.1 percent.
I am not sure about the effect of SDP’s strongest candidates; in fact I’m not sure whether their “star catches” are as strong as they appear.
Consistent branding and clear messaging
A facile way to explain the SDP’s remarkable improvement would be to speak of its rebranding, and to think that its new candidates were what kicked that off. I don’t think it explains enough. I think the key move was actually its sustained investment in new media, allowing it to reach a new audience directly. Couple that with a party stand that combines substance with principled clarity, and it attracts a second look from citizens. It is this second look that has in turn attracted a new slate of candidates with good credentials, but I am not yet convinced that these new candidates have anywhere near the same traction and voter appeal that the Workers’ Party’s best candidates have.
Nonetheless, that the party has gotten where it has speaks to the importance of clear branding and messaging.
The Workers’ Party has powerful branding as well. This is demonstrated in the way it crushed the SDA in a three-cornered contest in Punggol East, and in the way its performance was consistent in all constituencies where it contested. Everywhere, it was above 40 percent. That said, part of the reason was that it chose to fight in areas that it had spent years in retail politics, stretching from Nee Soon to Changi.
Nothing substitutes for working the ground persistently over a long period of time. Not only did it pay off in Aljunied for the Workers’ Party, it also paid off in East Coast GRC. There. the party got 36.1 percent of the votes in 2006, but this leapt up 9.1 percentage points to 45.2 percent in 2011.
Another area where the party cultivated intensively was Joo Chiat. In 2006, it got only 35 percent. In 2011, it nearly took the ward, with 49 percent, though having a younger, brighter candidate in Yee Jenn Jong would probably have made a big difference too.
What the results show is that where a party has not invested in groundwork, it can expect only the base level of very frustrated voters. At this election, I reckon that this is about 30 percent. Good candidates might lift the figure a little. Clear messaging might lift it a little more. But to win, time and effort has to be invested among residents. After all, how are voters going to believe that you will really serve them if they don’t see you until election time?