Weekend TODAY: What are their GRC chances?

A lot will depend on what the PAP will do during polls

P N BALJI
balji@mediacorp.com.sg

THE only surprise in the announcement that the Workers’ Party wants to win a GRC, and that too in the next elections, is that it came from its secretary-general, Mr Low Thia Khiang.

For a politician well-known for holding his cards very close to his chest, unveiling his party’s ambition way before the next election shows that the veteran politician can, well, surprise.

He must have realised that motherhood statements for such a grand occasion as the party’s 50th anniversary won’t do. A spark of vision was needed to get the ground excited and talking. Having said that, grabbing a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) is the logical next step for a party that has worked hard to make its presence felt in a political environment monopolised by the People’s Action Party (PAP).

Now that the die has been cast, the obvious question: So, what are the WP’s chances of grabbing a GRC? Looking at its performances in the three very close GRC fights in the last 20 years, the party appears to have a fighting chance. Political watchers think so, too.

These three battles in Eunos (1988), Cheng San (1997) and Aljunied (last year) had a couple of things in common: each had a controversial contestant, former Solicitor-General and law society president Francis Seow in Eunos, lawyer Tang Liang Hong in Cheng San and political activist James Gomez in Aljunied.

With the PAP big guns blazing away at these men, in the process making them into larger-than-life figures, voter interest was piqued to the extent that these political combatants could exploit their underdog status to the fullest.

In the most recent case, it was a question of not knowing when to stop the firing. Mr Gomez was exposed, video recording and all, after he claimed that he had sent in his minority status certificate to the Elections Department with the video footage showing otherwise.

The pressure was piled on Mr Low to take action, which he did in his characteristic matter-of-fact way – getting Mr Gomez to make a public apology.

If the matter had ended there, the Workers’ Party, helmed by new face Sylvia Lim, might not have got the 43.91 per cent of the votes cast in Aljunied.

Having a fighting chance in a GRC will also mean having a personality to lead the team. In 1988 in Eunos, it was an articulate and urbane Mr Seow; in 1997 in Cheng San, it was a thundering J B Jeyaretnam; and in Aljunied last year, it was a relatively unknown Ms Lim, but she had her gender and her status as a law lecturer as assets.

Who will the opposition party’s GRC heavyweight be at the next elections? The obvious choice is Mr Low, but moving out of single-ward Hougang, after having been its MP for 16 years, will be a big gamble and even a blow to his supporters. They have, despite the many carrots thrown at them, stood by his side.

On this one, Mr Low was not prepared to show his cards, despite the five questions put to him by The Straits Times in an interview published last week. To each question, he danced around with non-committal answers.

The only other person they have at this moment is Ms Lim. She is chairman of the party and fought a bruising battle in Aljunied, giving her much exposure.

But the PAP, known to relish a good fight, is not going to sit back, especially when it comes to a GRC. It won’t want a repeat of the repercussions of 1981 when Mr Jeyaretnam exploited the unhappiness of some 700 families over the demolition of several Blair Plain blocks of flats, carried out to make way for the expansion of the port, to break the PAP monopoly and win the Anson by-election. Twenty six years on and the Opposition presence, although very small, has continued in Parliament.

With the PAP Government delivering unprecedented economic growth and promising an inclusive approach, the loss of a GRC seems doubtful. But then, politics is a devil you never know. Anything can go wrong in an election campaign.

Detesting a fishmonger’s handshake or not working the ground as a coffee-shop MP or not knowing when to pull the brakes when attacking an Opposition candidate … any of these can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Really, the GRC fight is for the PAP to lose, not for the Workers’ Party to win.


WORKERS’ PARTY EYES GRC: WHAT THEY SAY

“Numbers alone don’t always give a clear picture. For example, PM Lee’s Ang Mo Kio GRC won 66.1 per cent of the vote … below the national average of 66.6 per cent. Does this mean that PM Lee is an unpopular PM? No, there were other factors at work. And so too with the WP’s recent slide in numbers. In 1997, we had the Asian financial crisis, while in 2001, we had Sept 11 and a global recession. In troubled times, people tend to vote for the incumbent if it has a good track record.

“When times are good, voters may start to think beyond the economic imperatives and consider other issues like alternative political voices, greater opposition in Parliament … or even to respond to tougher post-election policies like GST and transport fare increases.”

Dr Terence Chong, Fellow, Regional Social and Cultural Studies, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, when asked about the WP’s dip in the share of votes in the GRCs it has contested since 1988.

“The circumstances in each GE are different, and so it’s not realistic to put too much weight on the swing of votes for either the PAP or the Opposition Party contesting in a ward. I believe the WP has a fighting chance of winning a GRC in the next GE, especially if there is no significant redrawing of constituencies, especially those that are ‘lower hanging fruits’ for the Opposition.”

Mr Viswa Sadasivan, political observer

“Their intention of winning a GRC is no state secret. They cannot really expect the PAP to make it easy for them or to give them an advantage. If the WP were in Government, I do not expect them to (give opposition parties advantage) because it is not in the nature of political parties to do so.”

PAP’s Charles Chong, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC

– LEONG WEE KEAT

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