Close shaves for two autocracies

Last week’s two elections both counted as wins for their countries’ autocratic governments. But neither was at all comfortable.

First in Singapore, which went to the polls on Friday. You might think that a margin of 73 seats, or 83 to ten, hardly sounds uncomfortable, but for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) it was very much a warning sign. Its vote dropped 8.6% to 61.2%, only 1.1% above its lowest-ever result in 2011, and the ten seats won by the Workers’ Party were an all-time opposition record.

Because the electoral system is first-past-the-post, the various opposition parties try to avoid running against one another and splitting their vote. So although the Workers’ Party only had 11.2% of the vote overall, it actually won a majority – 50.5% – in the seats that it contested, also unprecedented. (Official results here.)

The other opposition parties didn’t do as well, none of them winning seats, but they came close. The Progress Singapore Party, with 10.2% overall, had 48.3% in the five-seat electorate of West Coast. (It will be awarded two compensatory seats.) The Singapore Democratic Party, 4.5% overall, threatened two single-member electorates, Bukit Panjang (46.3%) and Bukit Batok (45.2%).

So far, the government of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong shows no sign of admitting that it is in serious trouble. Lee, who is 68, had foreshadowed that this would be his last term, but there is now some doubt about his succession plan: the heir presumptive, Heng Swee Keat, was seen to have failed badly as the PAP’s campaign director, and in his own five-seat constituency, East Coast, the ruling party’s vote fell to just 53.4%.

Democracy in south-east Asia is fragile at best. But despite the Lee family’s nonsense about “Asian values”, there is little doubt that people there want more of it. Both the opposition victory in Malaysia two years ago and the continuing struggle by the people of Hong Kong will have had considerable resonance in Singapore.

This would be a good time to start dismantling the authoritarian state, while the economy is still strong and the PAP still has considerable reserves of good will. But most authoritarians don’t think that way, and it’s unlikely that Lee will be an exception.

Poland, which voted in its presidential election on Sunday, has not yet reached Singapore’s level of authoritarianism. But there is little doubt that that’s the direction in which the government of Jarosław Kaczyński wishes to go. Sunday’s result may – or may not –  give it pause.

Incumbent Andrzej Duda, supported by the ruling Law & Justice party, had led by a comfortable 13 points in the first round, held on 28 June. The second round, against centrist candidate Rafał Trzaskowski, was always going to be closer, but Duda held on to win with just 51.0%, a lead of about 420,000 votes.

That’s a big comedown from earlier in the year, when Duda regularly led by ten points or more in the polls. The substitution of Trzaskowski for previous candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska was evidently a success, but not quite enough to get the opposition across the line.

Not only is Poland deeply divided, its voting behavior remains very consistent. Duda’s margin was barely changed from the 51.5% with which he won the 2015 election (although turnout was up sharply), and almost identical to the 50.4% that the combined right-wing parties (Law & Justice plus Confederation) won at the 2019 parliamentary election.

Although it is not quite true to say that the Polish presidency is just ceremonial – Trzaskowski would have made some significant difficulties for Kaczyński had he won – it is nonetheless mostly a Westminster-style figurehead: the parliamentary elections are what determine power. The main struggle for democracy in Poland will have to be fought there in three years time.

Just as in Singapore, the question is how the government will react in the meantime. Will it take the closeness of the result as a sign that it needs to do more to conciliate public opinion and avoid making so many enemies? Or will it decide that it needs to harden its line and ratchet up control of the media and other independent institutions?

Given Kaczyński’s record, the latter seems more likely.

 

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