SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singaporeans go to the polls on Friday for the city-state’s most hotly contested general election, which could bring the sternest test of the long-ruling party’s dominance of politics even though it is bound to win.
Years of strong growth have turned the island nation into an international financial hub with spotless streets and malls, well-tended parks and living standards unmatched in Southeast Asia.
But the success and an influx of foreign workers has brought high property prices, crowded public transport, and a widening wealth gap which have fueled resentment among many in a city that surveys regularly rank one of the world’s most expensive.
Opposition parties are hoping to take advantage of the grumbling and are contesting all seats in parliament for the first time since independence in 1965.
They have focused their campaign on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, healthcare and housing.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled since independence, has a bedrock of support and will win the bulk of the 89 assembly seats but opposition inroads would challenge its effective monopoly on power.
“In this election, we are showing a report card, we are proud of it,” Lee told his last rally late on Wednesday, before a mandatory, election-eve cooling-off day.
“We are asking you for a mandate. Work with us. Help us make things better for Singapore.”
The PAP’s share of the vote dropped to 60.1 percent in the last election, in 2011, its lowest ever. Nevertheless, it held 79 of a total 87 seats in the outgoing parliament.
The main opposition Workers’ Party held seven seats while one, that of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the current prime minister’s father who died in March, was vacant.
The PAP is hoping that a sense of patriotism inspired by this year’s golden jubilee and of respect that followed the death of the elder Lee will work in its favor in the election.
However, opinion polls are illegal and so no one is making confident predictions.
Four years ago, during the last election campaign, Prime Minister Lee made a rare apology for the mistakes his government might have made.
Since then, his government has launched a multi-billion-dollar healthcare insurance program for the elderly, introduced cooling measures for the property market and curbed the flow of foreign workers.
Western-style welfarism was long scorned in Singapore and the opposition has argued its showing four years ago forced the government to shift towards the left.
The argument appears to have struck a chord and opposition rallies have been well attended.
More opposition members of parliament will be seen as a sign of a maturing political system and will also put pressure on the ruling party to do more on welfare.
“They are prepared for this day,” Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private bank, said of the PAP. “This day has to come eventually whether this weekend or five years from now.”
“Macro policy won’t change ... but obviously there will be greater call for doing more on enlarging the social welfare net and healthcare.”
Polling stations will open at 8 a.m. (0000 GMT) for an electorate of about 2.5 million. Preliminary results are expected from a couple of hours after the polls close at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT).
Additional reporting by Saeed Azhar; Editing by Robert Birsel