16 September 2015

Modelling the 2015 Singapore general election: theory and outcomes

Singaporeans voted on 11 September 2015 and returned the People's Action Party to government with a supermajority and a 9.9% national swing in its favour. This was despite 5 years of poor performance by the PAP, where policy and governance failures erupted in the public eye. We at Illusio conduct a postmortem to uncover, from first principles, what broadly went wrong for the opposition.

Explaining the results from first principles

Once again, let us recall Dunleavy's dominant party model:

A dominant party is seen as especially effective by voters. This means that all things being equal, rational voters will make the choice for the dominant party.

In real life terms: To some voters, Party X may equal or better the PAP at its manifesto/credentialed candidates/GRC masterplans than the PAP this year. All things being equal, these voters are more likely to still vote PAP because it is the party of competent policymaking and "government", even if the refinement and execution of policy is properly the work of the civil service.

Despite us saying that 2015 may well bring the worst results for the PAP, what mattered more was whether the opposition campaigns could convince the electorate that the PAP is both incompetent and radical, hurtling Singapore in a direction the electorate didn't want.

The opposition saved defeat from the jaws of victory; the PAP saved victory from the jaws of defeat

Examining the actual campaigns, it becomes clear that on the whole, the opposition were unable or unwilling to pin very visible planning, policy, and governance failures on the PAP. Instead, they largely confused the problem for its symptoms. While the opposition succeeded in convincing the electorate that they should be unhappy, it failed to convince the electorate that the PAP has been incompetent and untrustworthy, that these failures are the direct result of wrong, unsustainable policies that would lead to disaster for Singapore.

Negative campaigning works. Observe elections in the EU, UK, and US. They're nearly all won by driving up the other party's negative ratings, not by trumpeting how good your party is. In this respect, the opposition had one job to do in a sweet election year and failed it: ending the PAP's halo of effectiveness and hypercompetence.

(We note that GE2011 was the one election where the opposition and its backers on social media played this strategy almost to a T: Tin Pei Ling and Tan Chuan-Jin were made to stand for the new generation of incompetent PAP leaders, while Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim and Lim Swee Say were poster boys for incompetence in policy planning in housing, transport, and the labour force. The PAP demolishes the opposition using this tactic every election too. Except the one in 2011.)

Imagine what a negative campaign poster would say of each PAP minister

The PAP's PR machine may be barely competent but after the weekend break, a trio of speeches by Ng Eng Hen, Lee Hsien Loong and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, when unchallenged by the opposition, won the election for their party.

Ng attempted to fool Singaporeans by saying the PAP's moderation started 10 years ago, not 5 (and by doing so, attributed Singaporeans' unhappiness to the populist Goh administration instead of Minilee's radical administration). Tharman subtly reminded Singaporeans that the PAP does welfare, by pointing to the Gini-coefficient before and after wealth transfers by the government. Lee on the eve of Cooling Off Day attempted to convince Singaporeans that "we're already on it", that his administration has been implementing transport overhauls, CPF restructuring, property cooling, and an immigration slowdown.

It may be true that PAP's welfare is insufficient and doesn't go far enough (either to ameliorate the worst effects of inequality or the actual poverty line) and ditto for its transport, property, immigration and CPF measures, but no opposition party was at hand to rubbish Tharman and Minilee, paint the measures as outright incompetent and harmful and insufficient to avert disaster, and pin it squarely on the PAP's incompetence and radical ideology.

Because Ng, Lee, and Tharman's claims were uncontested, they managed to reverse their loses by convincing voters that the PAP has changed: it is "shifting left", moderating the very policies that infuriated Singaporeans in the 2011 general elections to even the white paper on population. It convinced Singaporeans that it is giving more welfare than previously, while the opposition was not at hand to argue convincingly that this was still insufficient. The PAP won this election it managed to convinced nearly 70% of voters that the PAP is still the most effective competent party to moderate the policies and correct the missteps of the PAP.

In our next post, we shall examine if the voting figures support the use of the dominant party model in our explanation of the result.

1 comment:

A Singaporean voter said...

The EU, UK and US have oppositions that are challenging the incumbent for the right to rule. Singapore politics is one of its kind in the world, where the oppositions are just contented being the check and balances. Or they do not have that capability or capacity to do so?