Political parties must surely be trying to discern some pointers from the recent presidential election results to guide them as they prepare for the next general election. I wonder what conclusions they are drawing.
That said, the next general election is perhaps five years away. Would it not be premature to read too much from the presidential election? I think so. We shouldn’t do more than look at the basics.
The first thing that struck me is how the results of the the presidential election confirm one of the findings of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) from their Post-Election Survey 2011 conducted in May this year. They found that 23 percent of voters could be classed as “conservative” preferring the status quo, 45-46 percent were “swing” and 31 percent “pluralist”, preferring more openness and checks and balances.
I had mentioned this finding in an earlier article. When Tony Tan emerged as the People’s Action Party’s preferred candidate, many thought that he would have an easy ride to the presidency since 60 percent of voters had backed the PAP in the general election. I said then that “the solid vote-bank Tony Tan can rely on is only about 20 – 25 percent”, basing this on IPS’ study.
That Tony Tan eventually managed to win just 35 percent of valid votes cast appears to confirm this analysis.
The general consensus, by my observation, is that if we overlay the presidential candidates’ vote-shares onto the 60:40 split between the PAP and opposition parties in the general election of May 2011, it would look something like this:
By straddling the middle, it would suggest that Tan Cheng Bock was largely drawing support from swing voters, while Tan Jee Say and Tony Tan were appealing to those with more determined convictions. At the risk of oversimplifying:
One conclusion opposition parties may draw from Tan Cheng Bock’s near-success is that future electoral success for them can be had by replicating what he did. That’s easy enough to say, but what exactly were the characteristics of his campaign that drew voters?
For the sake of discussion, let me name a few:
- A long PAP history
- Good record as a constituency member of the parliament
- During the campaign itself, speak in generalities
- Make no specific policy proposals, take as few firm stands as possible except in areas that are non-controversial (e.g. animal welfare, and “I will speak out if I see wrong-doing”)
- Articulate these generalities in emollient and mellifluous tones.
Items 1 and 2 may be hard to replicate, but surely 3 to 5 are do-able?
In short, the trick is to sound sufficiently different from the PAP without getting into specifics, but also to appear reassuringly moderate.
Actually the two are not contradictory, so I should rephrase the sentence: The trick is to sound sufficiently different from the PAP without getting into specifics and thereby appear reassuringly moderate. How so? Many Singaporeans see policy specifics as frightening, especially if they are far removed from their known world that is based on the PAP’s paradigm; they think immediately of labels like “radical”, “confrontational” and “destabilising”. When speaking to the typical Singaporean, brought up to be afraid of being political, to be unspecific is reassuring.
Nor is this strategy altogether new. If you revisit the rally speeches by the Workers’ Party during the May general election, you’d find in some ways a similar method, which probably accounted for their relative success. At those speeches, speakers spoke about the things that had gone wrong under the PAP (to distinguish themselves from the PAP), and then used metaphors (e.g. co-driver) to describe the role of the Workers’ Party and why voters should give them their votes. But the metaphors were often deployed in substitution to any in-depth discussion of policy alternatives. Nonetheless I would hasten to add that the Workers’ Party had a detailed manifesto, even if they didn’t much mention it at their rallies.
Is this now the proven formula for electoral success? Should all other opposition parties water down their convictions, park them aside in a manifesto and bring out honeyed words instead? Should they all move to the centre, stay resolutely uncontroversial and try to find language that every listener can interpret to mean whatever he wants it to mean?
Almost certainly, some parties would consider taking this route.
Even the PAP.
* * * * *
And therein lies a word of caution. The middle ground is not only there for opposition parties’ taking, it is also there for the PAP’s taking. Everybody can play this game, because the nature of this strategy is that of not appealing to convictions. Whatever convictions a party starts with, playing them down gains it entry into the game.
Another cautionary note is that these are swing voters, which means their support is contingent and possibly as variable as the weather.
There is another strategy, though it’s one that needs extremely long-term thinking. Instead of adapting the party to suit the tastes of the middle electorate, how about convincing the electorate to share the party’s convictions? Instead of pandering, persuade.
It is not as crazy or as impossible as it may sound. Social movements do that all the time. They have no choice. They do not water down their ideals to suit the undecided, for that would defeat their raison d’être; but they go out to shake the undecided until they are won over, and their opponents until they question their antagonism — becoming the new undecided.
Take for example a typical gay-equality movement. At the start, it would have been faced with a society wherein very few people shared the movement’s ideals. The majority in the society might in fact be furiously antagonistic to them, believing that homosexuality is wrong and deserves to be punished. We might represent that spread of views diagrammatically like this:
The movement does not sacrifice its ideals for popularity. It simply works at convincing others, starting with the undecided. Eventually all movements will get to this point and beyond:
It’s hard work, and the timelines (decades) may seem impractical for political parties. But even if it is only partially achieved, the reward of having a block of loyal voters sharing the same convictions is a huge electoral asset. However, one thing needs to be stressed: to take this route, a party must have clear, coherent ideals in the first place.