Singaporeans vote in shadow of pandemic and recession

Singaporean voters wait for their turn inside the Dunearn Secondary School polling station on Friday, July 10, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 10 July 2020

Singaporeans vote in shadow of pandemic and recession

  • Some had voiced doubt whether it was worth risking going to polling stations
  • Voting is mandatory in on the small Southeast Asian island

SINGAPORE: Singaporean voters fretted over the risks of COVID-19 as they queued in masks to cast their ballots on Friday, amid an uptick in new infections and prospects of the city-state’s economy entering its worst-ever recession.
In power since independence in 1965, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is widely expected by analysts to carry Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to another comfortable, and probably final victory.
Lee, the son of Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, has held the premiership since 2004. Aged 68, Lee has already flagged his intention to step aside in coming years, but he wanted a fresh mandate to steer the country out of the coronavirus crisis.
As the prime minister queued up to cast his vote, a video widely shared on social media showed his wife tapping him on the shoulder to remind him to socially distance when he strayed too close to the person in front.
At polling stations round the city, election officials clad in face shields enforced distancing rules and took voters’ temperatures as they entered polling booths.
“This is a very dangerous time to hold an election even though many precautions were taken,” said Mayank Goel, 21, a biomedical engineering student after voting.
Some Singaporeans had voiced doubt whether it was worth risking going to polling stations, though voting is mandatory in on the small Southeast Asian island that has become wealthy by being a banking, trade and transport hub for the region.
Since easing its lockdown last month, the number of new daily cases in Singapore has crept back into double figures, excluding the migrant workers living in dormitories where infection rates have been far higher.
And opposition parties had criticized Lee for calling the election, warning that it could hit public health and distract from government efforts to tackle the virus.
Social distancing rules constrained campaigning, and there were no party rallies allowed.
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 stained that early success, and persuaded the government to keep schools and businesses closed for longer.
Seen as a measure of approval for both the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis and the next generation of leaders, the poll 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 percent of the vote and tightened international hiring rules to address voters’ sensitivities.
Those concern have come to the fore again as the country emerges from lockdown to face its deepest recession.
Singapore is not the first country in Asia to hold elections during the pandemic — South Korea held parliamentary elections in April.
But with just 2.65 million voters in Singapore, election organizers counted on a fast, hygienic vote to minimize risks.
Voters were given a recommended time slot to vote. Inside the polling stations, they had to self-scan identity cards and sanitized their hands before receiving a ballot paper.
While officials had hoped it would take voters no more than five minutes to cast their ballot, some people said they waited for up to an hour as lines formed initially outside some polling stations.
Delays persuaded the election authority to drop a requirement for voters to wear gloves, and by around mid-morning the lines had receded.
Sample counts are expected soon after polling closes at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT) with final results due in the early hours of Saturday. A record 11 parties are contesting.


Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

Afghan security personnel in front of a prison gate after an attack by Daesh that had freed hundreds in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, on Monday. (AP)
Updated 34 min 17 sec ago

Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

  • The attack, reportedly by Daesh, took place hours before end of cease-fire

KABUL: Militants have stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan and released hundreds of prisoners, officials said.

The attack on the main prison in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar province, where several hundred Daesh fighters have been detained, began on Sunday afternoon with a car bomb detonated at the entrance to the jail.
The attack came hours before the end of a three-day ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who immediately denied any involvement in the assault. Several Western media outlets reported that the Daesh had claimed responsibility.
The Nangarhar governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told Arab News that there was still gunfire on Monday morning, and that more than 20 civilians and personnel and three attackers have died in the fighting.
Two local security sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that nearly half of the prison’s 1,500 inmates managed to flee.
They said 20 assailants made their way into the prison and a number of explosions were heard from inside the jail.
Residents said one group of attackers was firing on the jail from a nearby building and they reported heavy and sustained exchanges of small fire.
According to Khogyani, most of the escapees have been caught. He gave no further details about the attack.
The assault comes amid official claims that Daesh leaders have been arrested or killed in recent months, notably in Nangarhar, which used to be the group’s bastion.
“This is a major embarrassment for the government, which every now and then claims to have wiped out or paralyzed the Daesh. The government needs to answer why such a high security lapse has happened,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal said.
The Eid Al-Adha ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces was a part of efforts to begin long-awaited peace talks following a US-Taliban agreement signed in Qatar in late February.
In accordance with the deal, the Taliban is releasing 1,000 Afghan troops in exchange for 5,000 militants held by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
The process is near completion, but Kabul is refusing to free 400 remaining Taliban inmates, saying they have been behind “heinous crimes.”
After Eid prayers on Sunday, Ghani announced he would summon a traditional grand assembly, Loya Jirga, to help him decide whether the rest of Taliban prisoners should be freed.
The assembly is scheduled to start on Aug. 7. Loya Jirga has deep roots in Afghan history and tradition and is usually summoned during times of crisis or emergency.
The Taliban have voiced their opposition to the convocation of the jirga. Their Qatar-based spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told TOLO News that Kabul’s decision would only complicate the peace process.
Afghan politicians are divided on the jirga announcement. Hamidullah Tokhi, a member of parliament from southern Zabul province, said: “The nation and parliament have deep doubts about Ghani’s goal for summoning the jirga to decide over the fate of 400 Taliban.
“All of the 4,500 Taliban already freed were involved in some sort of bloody attacks. Why did the government not ask for the jirga on the overall release of the Taliban?”
“Summoning the jirga now is a treason to this country and a clear blocking of the peace process,” he said.
Torek Farhadi, who served in the previous government as an adviser, said Ghani hopes that the victory of Democrats in the upcoming US elections, would sideline Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan who struck the Qatar deal with the Taliban, allowing Kabul to be in charge of the peace process.
“We should have one Loya Jirga to discuss substantive matters on peace with the Taliban and the type of future regime,” Farhadi said, adding that the Taliban, too, should participate in the assembly. “This meeting would be like a half-baked national dialogue (if it is) conducted by only one side of the conflict.”