So far this month, elections in Canada and a referendum in the United Kingdom have drawn attention to the importance of voting systems and the way that their defects can frustrate democratic outcomes. Meanwhile, events in the Middle East have displayed some of the varied arsenal available to autocrats whose positions are threatened by popular dissent.

But our region can trump that: Singapore, which held elections last Saturday, manages to illustrate both lessons at once.

In form, Singapore is a parliamentary democracy. In reality it has been ruled since independence as an authoritarian state under the tutelage of Lee Kwan Yew, now “minister mentor” and father of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Freedom House’s report on the country repays careful reading, but its bald conclusion is that “Singapore is not an electoral democracy”.

Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party, has been able to manipulate the electoral process to consistently win between about 65% and 75% of the vote. In a democratic voting system, that would give it at most about three-quarters of the seats, leaving enough for a viable opposition to develop and possibly go on to bigger things.

But under the first-past-the-post system Singapore inherited from Britain, the PAP invariably won either all or almost all the seats, with only a stray seat or two going to marginalised and persecuted opposition figures like J.B. Jeyaretnam.

It’s characteristic of authoritarian regimes, however, that they are never satisfied with their degree of dominance. They always want more compliance, more unanimity, more control. Perhaps they realise that, in the perverse way that public relations sometimes works, they are more likely to escape criticism if they eliminate opposition entirely than if they tolerate a handful of opponents (as Robert Mugabe discovered in Zimbabwe).

That’s why the Singaporean government in 1988 introduced (and subsequently expanded) a variation to the system designed to more effectively lock the opposition out of power, by the creation of multimember electorates (known as “group representation constituencies”). That might sound like a move towards democracy, but that’s only because multimember electorates usually mean proportional representation. These didn’t.

Instead, parties had to run tickets for all the seats in an electorate (with a prescribed amount of ethnic diversity), and the ticket with the most votes won all the seats. (Australia used to use this system for the senate in the bad old days, and Victoria used something very like it for local government elections as recently as the 1990s.) The government, of course, kept control of how many electorates there would be and how many members each would elect — a few singe-member electorates also remained in place.

Simple mathematics shows that for a dominant party to win a plurality in a small number of big electorates is much easier than doing the same in a large number of smaller ones. The opposition, already starting with every imaginable disadvantage, was denied the opportunity to gradually build up its strength by picking off individual seats; instead it had to put a larger number of eggs in one basket it it were to seriously try to win multimember electorates.

The downside for the PAP is that if an opposition ticket were to win one of the multimember electorates, it would immediately get a big jump in its representation. That’s what happened last weekend: the government’s share of the vote fell to 60.1%, the lowest since independence, and the opposition Workers’ Party won six seats, also a record — five of them by winning the multimember electorate of Aljunied.

Another important lesson for autocrats: fiddling with electoral systems is an uncertain business, and sometimes ends up making things worse rather than better.

That’s not to say that this represents a decisive breakthrough for the opposition. Its previous best result, in 1991, was broadly similar (39% and four seats), but the PAP improved its game and the opposition lapsed into infighting. Two elections later, they were pretty much back to square one.

There’s another lesson: even dictatorships are not immune to public opinion, and Singapore is no exception. For all its dirty tricks, the PAP would not be where it is today if it had not also provided material prosperity and stable government. Many observers think it would comfortably win a free election (although many also thought that about the old communist parties of eastern Europe).

But at this point, free elections look like a distant prospect. The PAP will probably take the result as a cue to tighten the reins further, and there is no sign that it will face any external pressure to reform. Even Hosni Mubarak got the occasional lecture from Washington about the virtues of democracy. Singapore’s rulers get none; conservatives across the Western world sing their praises.

That’s the final lesson: having friends in the right places can take you a long way. Events in the Middle East are helping to test just how far, and Singapore will be yet another interested observer.

Peter Fray

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