By: Our Correspondent

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is gearing up for a general election later this year, despite the fact that under the country’s parliamentary system they do not have to be held until January 2017. It will be a watershed vote, the first since the death of the country’s founder Lee Kuan Yew and coming as the country marks its 50th anniversary.

Opposition leaders are concerned for a variety of reasons that they may be forced to give back some of the gains won in the 2011 election when the overall share of the vote for the People’s Action Party, which had been declining in election after election, fell from 66 percent to 60 percent. The PAP has ruled Singaore since it was founded.

The PAP apparently has woken up from that 2011 debacle – in which it still won 79 of the 99 elected seats in the parliament by gerrymandering. The government has responded dramatically to various public policy problems it had ignored previously. It installed an S$8 billion “Pioneer Generation Package” that has cut health care costs for the elderly and introduced tough measures to forestall a residential property bubble. It has cut the massive inflow of foreign workers, who at one point amounted to more than a third of the country’s population.

Big stick still rules

Nonetheless there is little sign of a new era after the passing of the elder Lee. The government still alternates between the carrot and the stick, bullying opponents, bloggers and publications with lawsuits and administrative action while delivering pork to the voters.

“Actually I’m seriously concerned that the PAP are going to improve on their share of the vote in the 2011 elections,” said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the secretary-general of the opposition Reform Party. “I don’t see the same kind of excitement or the rush of people coming forward to volunteer.”

Indeed, an April poll cited by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies found that nearly 80 percent of Singaporeans are satisfied with the government, up 8 percentage points from a year ago on a variety of fronts including salaries, cost of living, the rich-poor gap and government accountability.

There are several other reasons to go ahead early, if for no other reason than to get the polls out of the way ahead of a rapidly cooling economy that could eventually affect voter sentiment. Surveys of economists say the economy is struggling from a slowdown in global activity, self-imposed domestic labor costs and falling commodity prices, which have severely reduced demand in many sectors including its important offshore oil exploration support sector. Second-quarter GDP came in at just 1.7 percent annually.

Built-in edge

The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee – which is in charge of redistricting – announced it finished its work on July 24, a sign that elections are imminent. The PAP traditonally uses its clout to gerrymander districts and impose other tactics to stay in power like group representation constituencies that favor the powerful PAP against fragmented opposition parties. It seems likely to be the same this time around given the short time between the redistricting committee’s report and a likely election. The opposition will have to scramble to redeploy forces in new districts.