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Stakes high for Singapore's PM in May 6 poll

By Staff
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SINGAPORE, May 4 (Reuters) Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his People's Action Party (PAP) want nothing less than a crushing victory in the May 6 election -- one that will obliterate the opposition and confirm Lee's right to rule.

The PAP has dominated politics since independence in 1965 and had 82 of the 84 seats in the last parliament. For Lee, son of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, a loss of more seats or a poor result in terms of votes cast would be an embarrassment.

A stronger showing by the opposition parties could also help attract young, well-educated voters, as well as Singaporeans who have been reluctant to speak out against the monolithic PAP.

''There is a certain sense of nervousness in the air and the stakes are high for the PAP,'' Ho Khai L eong, a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University, told Reuters.

''If the opposition wins more seats, it would spark off a trend; more professionals would join the opposition,'' he said.

The poll will be the first real popularity test for Lee, 54, since he was appointed in August 2004 without an election.

Analysts said that for Lee to have a strong mandate, he needs to secure at least 61 per cent of the popular vote and lose no more than four seats, which was the result his predecessor, Goh Chok Tong, got in the PAP's worst electoral outcome in 1991.

Singapore's tiny opposition parties have never won more than four seats in parliament.

Opposition politicians blame this on PAP tactics such as defamation lawsuits against their leaders, threats that opposition wards could be excluded from subsidised housing renovation schemes and negative coverage by the state-owned broadcaster and pro-government newspapers.

Yet, despite the pitfalls, opposition parties are attracting more overseas graduates and upwardly mobile professionals.

''If more professionals join the opposition camp, then in a few more elections, the PAP may not be able to keep its dominance in parliament,'' said Ho.

The 20 new names fielded by the Workers' Party, the oldest opposition party, included many with careers as academics, lawyers and bankers -- a far cry from previous line-ups.

The opposition has fielded candidates for more than half the seats in parliament, denying the PAP an automatic victory on Nomination Day for the first time in nearly two decades.

DISENCHANTED VOTERS The bedrock of PAP support has always been with older voters, who lived through Singapore's rocky post-independence years and witnessed its transformation into an economic powerhouse.

But some older voters, particularly the low-income workers, have grown increasingly disgruntled because of job cuts, higher consumer taxes and rising transport and utilities costs.

About 40 percent of today's eligible voters were born after 1965. These Singaporeans faced few hardships and may be tempted to vote for the opposition, analysts said.

''Some Singaporeans, particularly the younger voters, are not impressed with the way the country is being run,'' said Seah Chiang Nee, a political commentator. They see the PAP's electioneering tactics as below the belt, he added.

The PAP is only too aware of the need to woo young voters.

When Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister, he made an impassioned speech promising to create more political openness and encouraged the young to be more involved in politics.

Yet there is scant evidence of loosening up.

Lee's government has cracked down on a political film maker, banned a gay Web site and strictly enforces limits on public speaking and demonstrations. Last month, the government said it would require political parties and individuals to register if they wish to post political content on Web sites.

''The PAP are in a quandary. They know they need to open up but are afraid that they would lose complete control if they move too quickly into uncharted territory,'' Seah said.

REUTERS DKS RK0435

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