Singapore, May 6: Singaporeans began voting today in a general election that is widely expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to power.
The parliamentary election is the first real test of popularity for Lee, 54, since he took over as Prime Minister from Goh Chok Tong in August 2004 in a planned leadership transition.
Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) was denied a walkover victory for the first time in 18 years when opposition parties fielded candidates for 47 of the 84 seats. But analysts have no doubt that the PAP will win a comfortable majority again.
Voting is compulsory and some 1.2 million Singaporeans are eligible to vote. Polling booths opened at 8 am local time and will close at 8 pm (1730 hrs IST). The first results are expected around two hours afterwards.
Some polling stations opened minutes ahead of schedule to allow voters to shelter from an early morning downpour, state-owned television said.
Singapore bans election surveys and exit polls, making it difficult to gauge how much popular support there is for Lee and for the opposition parties.
In recent days, opposition rallies have attracted crowds of several thousand people, but that may not necessarily translate into votes as some participants come from wards where the PAP is unopposed.
The nine days of campaigning, which ended yesterday, were dominated by debates about the widening income gap, rising medical costs, job cuts, and calls for a less authoritarian political system.
The PAP has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1965 and won 82 of the 84 seats in the last election.
For Lee -- the eldest son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew -- to have a strong mandate, he needs to secure at least 61 percent of votes cast and lose no more than four seats, analysts said. That was the outcome that his predecessor, Goh Chok Tong, got in the PAP's worst electoral outcome in 1991.
If the PAP wins less than 60 percent of the votes cast or loses one of the multi-member wards where as many as six candidates run together, it would be a ''major psychological blow'', said Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB-GK Research.
The PAP, which is fielding 24 new candidates, is campaigning on boosting the country's 8 billion economy and helping the wealthy city-state's poor and elderly.
Singapore's tiny opposition parties have never won more than four seats in parliament.