09 September 2015

Modelling the 2015 Singapore General Elections IV: The main opposition

I introduced last week a voting model based on the idea of a dominant party system. Here at the end of the rally season, I've decided to compare the election strategies and positioning of really existing major opposition parties in Singapore against the theoretical model. I also explain why SDP is the comeback kid, why WP can't seem to get out of the kenna hantam mode, and why SingFirst might just surprise everyone in 2 days.

Let's now turn to how the rest of Singapore's opposition parties have waged their campaigns and compare their actual strategies to the predictions in our theoretical model, which I reproduce again here for your convenience.

Singapore Democratic Party, Chee Soon Juan, the Comeback Kid

We previously wrote that the SDP "demonstrates clearly the divergent strategy. It is as liberal as the PAP is centrist or conservative. On the policy front, it challenges most of the PAP's policies". We were right, and the SG2015 Electionaire proves it.

Photo of Dr Chee courtesy of Shawn Byron Danker, 2015

Did we expect the SDP and Dr Chee Soon Juan to be the comeback kid of the GE2015 rally cycle? No. But the model would have predicted it, via first principles, empirical observation, and factoring in the history of Singapore.

First principles would predict that when a dominant party moves too fast to the far right without social engineering the electorate to move along with it, any niche party on the left would benefit by gaining the voters vacated by the dominant party's fast radical shift.

Empirical observation would've told us that the SDP would be in play this election, based on its shift way before the 2011 elections, from an NGO masquerading as a political party to an actual political party.

A historical understanding of Singapore politics would've told us the SDP would be in the ascendant this year. We thank Vivian Balakrishnan, the destroyer of worlds, for reminding us that there was some unpleasantness between Dr Chee and Mr Chiam. It is this unpleasantness that, regardless of who was at fault, is the foundation of the modern SDP. It is only after the exit of Chiam that the party shifted leftwards, adopted a consistent liberal philosophy, and crafted a coherent and predictable platform rooted on these liberal, even socialist values.

Vivian Balakrishnan, in faulting his opponent, reminds us how Dr Chee has saved the SDP from becoming the vehicle of Mr Chiam and his conservative, PAP-friendly apolitical politics, a vehicle that will expire with his last breath. Vivian Balakrishnan reminds us that Chee is a far more sophisticated politician than Chiam, having built a modern political party out of a star vehicle, a political party that stands for ideals bigger than the leader of the party. Vivian Balakrishnan, if he could, might even point out in a misguided bid to destroy Chee, that the SDP experienced a complete collapse and purge of its youth wing in 2012. In doing so, Vivian reminds us all that the SDP is a viable party that continues to recruit new membership because of its consistent ideology and policy stands, in spite of any real or imagined party shenanigans. And that would be a lot more than what we can say of a ruling party that admits it finds recruiting new blood a difficult task.

Now add these 2 factors to a little historical footnote: On the eve of Singapore's self-governance elections of 1957, ALL the viable parties were on the left. The PAP ruled Singapore in its first 2 decades of independence as a socialist party. Socialism, social democracy, and the left are in the DNA of Singapore. As the only openly leftist party remaining in Singapore politics, the SDP has picked up the voters in the centre-left who have been left behind by the PAP's radical rightward shift in the past 10 years.

In all probability, SDP would've been the party of the hour in 2011, had Dr Chee managed to get discharged from bankruptcy much earlier, or just not have gotten the banhammer altogether. Whether SDP will be the party of the hour in 2015 will depend on the extent of the national swing against the PAP. Further, we predict that in the event of a Chee win, the PAP will have also lost at least 10 more seats compared to 2011.

The Workers Party: Enough about the town council already!

WP's rally season has been overwhelmed by the town council issue even though the party has not abandoned its convergent approach. We chalk this to the weakness and ineffectiveness of WP's policy unit.

1. Elected to parliament in 2011, WP was not willing or unable to push its policies, debate PAP policies, pose parliamentary questions to further its ideological or policy positions. Instead, Singaporeans got a healthy dose of Town Council and $2 company news, exposing the politics of procurement, contracts for friends, and lapses of procedure and accountability on both sides of the political fence.

2. WP presented in parliament again and again proposals that weren't based on their manifesto or policy papers, but were just discounts on PAP proposals. In essence, the WP agreed with PAP's direction for the nation, but asked for a slower speed limit, a lower population boom target. By refusing to consider the possibility that PAP policies should be abandoned or reversed, the WP cannot therefore run in GE2015 on the platform of calling out PAP's policy failures.

3. Early in the rally season, WP floated the idea of minimum wage and unemployment benefits. We cannot tell if the proposals were that incompetently put forward, or if the take-up was that poor, or if the party just got frightened when finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and other PAP contenders decided to pooh-pooh minimum wage. The upshot is we have heard precious little about WP's minimum wage and unemployment benefits proposal since.

Where does this leave WP on the dominant party system model?

The WP Manifest Destiny Strategy

We postulate that the WP is playing a far different game altogether, one that Dunleavy did not model. Its refusal to be pinned down by specific policy positions when dealing with the PAP, and its refusal to negotiate with the rest of the opposition is rational party behaviour. It is the rational behaviour of an opposition party in a complex dominant party system that aims to be the "dominant party of the opposition".

As the opposition party that got lucky in 2011, WP aims to create an aura of inevitability and a halo of effectiveness over the rest of the opposition. Its goal is to pick off a GRC from the PAP every general election and coast on the folksy, non-threatening popularity of its leader, Low Thia Khiang.

At this rate, it will take 7 to 8 elections (counting from 2011) for the WP to deny the PAP of its supermajority in parliament. And another 40 to 45 years for the WP to form the government, and take over the PAP as the dominant party in Singapore.

This is a strategy that Dunleavy does not model in his dominant party system, not because he's just a book smart academic and that Low Thia Khiang is a political genius. This is a non-viable strategy. It's premature, disingenuous, and arrogant for any "viable" opposition to crown itself a "dominant opposition party" just because it holds 6 seats in an 89-seat parliament.

It is a strategy that basically endorses the PAP's vision and trajectory for Singapore. It is a strategy that denies the reality of the PAP's policy failures and the real suffering of the people, who need failed policies overturned now and not in 40 years time when there's an eventual WP government thanks to its Manifest Destiny strategy.

Had the SDP been more viable, or Low Thia Khiang any less personable, or the PAP more competent and popular, the WP would today be at the verge of an electoral wipeout. Today though, it stands on the verge of gaining East Coast GRC. Tomorrow, we hope it cleans up its act and behave more like a rational first world opposition party.

Singaporeans First Party

Former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say has enough of a brand name to a viable party, if not a major party in our dominant party system. We originally predicted in our first post in this series that SingFirst would "reveal itself to be an old school social democrat party like the Old PAP" and reach out and position itself to "voters who remember the good old days of the 1980s and early 90s, just before the economic bubble, uncontrolled immigration, and PM Lee Hsien Loong."

This is Tan Jee Say's speech at the Queenstown Stadium rally. No surprises: Despite having roughly the same set of liberal policy positions on the key issues of this election as SDP and NSP (according to the 2015 Electionaire), Tan Jee Say takes SingFirst on a deeply convergent strategy. He adopts the language and perspective of government and policy-making: the PAP has failed; it no longer practises or promotes real meritocracy; its policies incompetent; its welfare insufficient and not serious. Tan Jee Say may level these charges and come off like an angry old man. But he goes on to tell in detail how the policies have failed from the point of view of a policymaker - a feat not repeated by any opposition party this rally season.

Tan Jee Say's approach targets the soft 30% of the 60% that vote for PAP most of the time. That soft 30% is roughly the number of voters that could be persuaded to repudiate the PAP's candidate for president in 2011. That 30%, Tan Jee Say probably calculates will be amenable to the number 1 concern of SingFirst, and susceptible to the charms of a campaign based on keywords like competence, policy soundness, meritocracy, so on.

Such a campaign will necessarily be the harshest on the PAP's policy failures, and we predict a comparison with the language of the other rallies will prove that Tan Jee Say and SingFirst have run the most hardhitting campaign against the PAP.

We have reason to believe that in an ageing ward like Tanjong Pagar, Tan and his core team of former senior civil servants and semi-authority figures may find an unexpected base to build their party on. Especially when they make the anchor minister in the ward look like a boy in his school uniform. I predict an easy minimum 45% vote share for the party, and hope Mr Tan has what it takes to close the deal.

We'll talk about the minor parties and the non-viable parties after the election.

No comments: