Singapore extends voting hours as pandemic slows poll

Personnel prepare ballot boxes at a polling station during Singapore's general election in Singapore

Voting in Singapore’s election was extended on Friday, after coronavirus infection control measures led to long queues and delays at polling stations.

Voting is mandatory in the affluent city-state, but many fretted about the risks as they lined up in masks for as long as an hour to cast their ballots, with jobs at the top of their agenda as the pandemic threatens to cause Singapore’s worst-ever recession.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since independence in 1965, is expected by analysts to carry Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to another comfortable, and probably final, victory.

Lee, the 68-year-old son of Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, has been premier since 2004. He has already flagged his intention to step down in the next few years, but first wants a fresh mandate to overcome the coronavirus crisis.

As he queued to vote, a video widely shared on social media showed his wife tapping him on the shoulder to remind him to keep his distance when he strayed too close to the person in front.

All around the city, election officials wearing visors enforced distancing rules and took voters’ temperatures.

The delays convinced the election authority to drop a requirement for voters to wear gloves, and by evening it had extended voting by two hours to 10 p.m. (1400 GMT).

Since a coronavirus lockdown eased in June after two months, the number of new daily cases has crept back into double figures, excluding the migrant workers living in dormitories where infection rates have been far higher.

“This is a very dangerous time to hold an election, even though many precautions were taken,” Mayank Goel, 21, a biomedical engineering student, said after voting.

Social distancing rules constrained campaigning, and no party rallies were allowed, but opposition parties and rights groups still warned that holding the election now could distract from government efforts to tackle the virus.

Singapore has one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world and initially earned widespread praise for its efforts. But subsequent mass outbreaks in cramped migrant worker dormitories persuaded the government to keep schools and businesses closed for longer.

The poll is widely seen as a test of views on the government’s response to the crisis and the next generation of leaders, and the results will be closely watched as even small shifts in the PAP’s popularity can lead to major policy changes.

When concerns around immigration and jobs flared in 2011, the PAP polled a record-low 60%. It subsequently tightened international hiring rules to address those concerns – which have now come to the fore again.

Organisers had hoped for fast, hygienic voting to minimise risks. Voters were given a recommended time slot and, inside the polling stations, they had to self-scan identity cards and sanitise their hands before receiving a ballot paper.

Sample counts are expected soon after polling closes with final results due in the early hours of Saturday.

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