By EILEEN NG and EE MING TOH
SINGAPORE (AP) — Wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, Singaporeans voted Friday in a general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s long-governing party to power.
Polling was extended by two hours until 10 p.m. (1400 GMT) after strict safety measures in place for Southeast Asia’s first national election amid the pandemic delayed voting at some stations.
The Election Department said 96% of 2.65 million voters had cast ballots as of 8 p.m., when the polls were originally due to close, but there were still some polling stations with long lines.
Several opposition parties said the voting extension was unprecedented and “highly irregular” and compromised the election’s integrity. They also said it endangered public health because the last hour of voting had been reserved for those with fevers or under isolation after returning from overseas.
Voting is compulsory in the tiny city-state, one of a handful of countries that has held elections during the pandemic. The Election Department earlier dropped a requirement that disposable gloves be worn during voting to cut waiting time.
The health crisis and concerns over an economic recession were expected to cause voters to opt for stability under Lee’s People’s Action Party. Ten small opposition parties contested the 93 parliamentary seats up for grabs, mostly on a one-on-one basis against the PAP. The opposition urged voters to reduce the PAP’s overwhelming majority in parliament to deny it a “blank check.”
The PAP has dominated politics since 1959, when Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore’s first prime minister and built the resource-poor city-state into one of the world’s richest nations during 31 years in office. In 2015, the party won 69.9% of the total vote and 93% of parliamentary seats. But it has also been criticized for tight government control, media censorship and use of oppressive laws and civil lawsuits against dissidents.
Lee and his wife, Temasek Holdings CEO Ho Ching, lined up outside a school around noon to cast their ballots. He said the safety protocols were practical, although they led to longer-than-expected lines.
“The officers are trying their best and from what I know, the teething problems have been sorted out and it’s running smoothly now,” Lee, 68, said after voting.
Retiree Dennis Phua said the election shouldn’t have been rushed since the PAP’s five-year mandate would have continued until next April. He said he hopes for louder opposition voices in parliament so the PAP wont be “so arrogant.”
“There are so many things we are not satisfied with. It’s a good government, but the way they do things can be better,” Phua said as he waited outside a school to vote.
But not all agree.
“I hope that it will remain as the status quo. For so many years, it has been the same and so far so good,” said homemaker Florence See. She praised the government for putting in place strict measures to protect voters.
Lee has faced opposition from his estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who said the PAP had turned into an elitist party. The younger Lee joined an opposition party last month but is not running in the election. The prime minister has said the polls are about ensuring a strong government to secure the country’s future, not his family feud.
Singapore’s election follows polls in Serbia and Mongolia last month and in South Korea in April, when governing parties in all three countries scored resounding victories.
The polls come just weeks after the country emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling one of Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. The tiny nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, most of them foreign workers living in crowded dormitories that were overlooked in the early phase of its crisis management.
With the economy forecast to shrink this year by up to 7%, Lee’s government has unveiled several economic assistance packages totaling nearly 100 billion Singapore dollars ($71.7 billion) but warned the full economic impact hasn’t been felt yet.
While coronavirus cases have mostly declined, new daily cases still top 100.
The government determined the election could be held safely with the number of polling stations increased from 880 to 1,100 and other safety measures such as masks and temperature checks.
Voters were given a two-hour window to cast their ballots to reduce crowding. Election officials were wearing full personal protective gear and polling booths were sanitized every half hour. People being treated for COVID-19 or under quarantine at home were not allowed to vote.
Results were expected to begin arriving late Friday,
Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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