Singaporeans wearing masks and gloves began casting their ballot on Friday under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic that is pushing the city-state’s economy towards its deepest recession and has made concerns over jobs the focus of the election.
In power since independence in 1965, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is expected to carry Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to another comfortable, and probably final victory.
The son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding leader, Lee has held the premiership since 2004, but aged 68 he has already flagged his intention to step aside in coming years.
Seen as a measure of approval for both the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis and the next generation of leaders, the poll results will be closely watched as even small shifts in the PAP’s popularity can lead to major policy changes.
At one polling centre in a school on Friday, about 30 elderly people queued up before voting started and election officials were seen directing the crowd to wear masks and face shields.
When concerns around immigration and jobs flared in 2011, the PAP polled a record-low 60% of the vote and tightened international hiring rules to address voters’ sensitivities.
As the Asian trade and finance hub emerges from lockdown to face its deepest recession, these concerns are once again to the fore.
“I think it’s ok to vote during a pandemic because the conditions aren’t that severe at this point and all necessary precautions are being taken,” said Malini Nathan, 42, a communications executive.
“Issues I am concerned about are healthcare, job security and retirement,” Nathan said.
Sample counts are expected soon after the close of polls at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT) with final results due in the early hours of Saturday.
Citizens have each been given a recommended voting window.
There are just 2.65 million voters, and election organisers are counting on a fast, regimented and hygienic vote to minimise risks of coronavirus infections.
Since easing a lockdown last month, the number of new daily cases crept back into double figures last week, excluding the migrant workers living in dormitories where infection rates have been far higher.
Wearing masks is compulsory in public. And voters are expected to spend no more than five minutes in a polling station, where they will self-scan identity cards, sanitise their hands and pull on disposable gloves before receiving a ballot paper.
Singapore is not the first country in Asia to hold elections during the pandemic – South Korea held parliamentary elections in April – but its mandatory ballot comes under strict conditions.
COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine cannot vote, but a mobile polling team will bring the ballot box to the rooms of Singaporeans who have recently returned from overseas and are being isolated at hotels.
The virus outbreak also constrained campaigning as candidates had to adhere to social distancing rules that limit groups to five, avoid shaking hands or fist bumping. Mass rallies – often attended by thousands – were banned.
The city-state has one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world, and initially earned widespread praise for its COVID-19 containment efforts.