ELECTIONS in Singapore run so smoothly, they are hardly noticeable outside the city-state. We suspect most people here in the Philippines are probably unaware that Singapore just conducted a national election, returning the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to power for at least the next four years in a process that took, from the time office-seekers filed their candidacies until the last vote was counted, a total of about two weeks.
To be sure, Singapore’s size and its disciplined political and social environment make an efficient election possible, and it is not reasonable to expect that applying the Singapore election model here in a copy-and-paste fashion would have the same productive results. And there are certain aspects of the way elections in Singapore are organized that would definitely find a poor reception among our enthusiastically democratic if embarrassingly undisciplined electorate. Critics of the ruling PAP – which has dominated the government since 1965 – have, for example, argued that Singapore’s odd way of grouping parliamentary seats under an otherwise winner-take-all, or first-past-the-post system gives the PAP an unfair advantage.
While acknowledging that the Singapore system probably is not perfect, we can still pick out some of its more appealing features. First, the permissible campaign period is kept short (just 10 days), and is strictly enforced. Second, voting is mandatory; the voter turnout in the election just concluded Friday was about 93.5 percent. Third, and perhaps most helpfully, the publication of opinion polls or voter-preference surveys prior to the election is prohibited by law.
Here in the Philippines, we do already have a “prescribed” campaign period – which is blatantly ignored by everyone, and rarely if ever challenged or punished by the Commission on Elections. While voter turnout in Philippine elections generally is robust, particularly compared to countries like the US, which struggles to get even a third of eligible voters to the polls, there is room for improvement. Constantly changing procedures and requirements for voter registration – the mechanics of it seem to be different with each new election – discourage many would-be voters.
Banning the publication of pre-election surveys would be a considerable improvement, because that would remove the tool that is most often used to manipulate voter attitudes. Candidates, political parties, media, or others would still be permitted to conduct surveys, of course, but only for their own purposes; the results cannot be disclosed publicly until after the election. In the absence of surveys, the results of an election are truly reflective of voters’ opinions, because the candidates and the news media are obliged to make a message of what candidates actually say and do, rather than survey results.
Our election is eight months away, so realistically there is not enough time to change election laws completely. There is, however, enough time to at least properly enforce what laws we do have, such as the rules pertaining to when and where candidates may campaign. Starting with that will help everyone get used to the idea of “following rules,” which will make it much easier to make bigger and more productive changes for the future.