The first election since the death of Lee Kuan Yew

ELECTIONS in Singapore are usually short, sharp affairs: the political equivalent of one-round boxing matches, in which the super-heavyweight ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) swiftly floors the puny opposition after a nine-day campaign period. This one, called for September 11th, well over a year before it was strictly necessary, seems different in a number of ways, if not in the likely outcome.

Firstly, for weeks now it has been an open secret that the election would be held that weekend. The date was formally set on August 25th, when parliament was dissolved, but by then no one was surprised. The PAP has been steadily unveiling its candidates—a typical mixture of sitting MPs, former civil servants and soldiers and a few hopefuls from the private sector—for 89 seats, divided into 13 “single-member” constituencies and 16 “group” ones, where parties field a slate of three to six.

The half-dozen opposition parties have likewise been introducing their new recruits, and hitting the streets to shake hands and distribute flyers. All that has distinguished this past month or more from the campaign proper, which begins on September 1st, is that there have been no big rallies.

A second difference is that this will be the first election where all seats will be contested. In the previous election, in 2011, the group constituency of the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, turned into a PAP walkover after the opposition candidates were disqualified on a technicality.

There, of course, is the third difference. For the first time in its history Singapore is holding an election without Mr Lee, who died in March, prompting an outpouring of grief at home and admiring obituaries around the world. The current prime minister and leader of the PAP is his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who is said to have been determined to hold an election early, against the advice of some colleagues, in order to give himself time to groom a successor. (He is 63.)

The challenge for the PAP, which has been in power since Singapore won “self-government” from Britain in 1959, is to improve on its showing in 2011, which was its worst since the advent of full independence in 1965. Still it won 60% of the vote then and, thanks to a first-past-the-post system, 93% of elected seats. But the PAP enjoys so many built-in advantages that the result almost seemed like a defeat.

Since then, the government has tried to tackle some of the causes of disgruntlement: curbing immigration; speeding up the construction of public housing and transport facilities; improving welfare arrangements, especially for the elderly. It has also tried to adopt a new, softer tone, and to learn to listen to its people rather than simply lecture them.

The PAP has also perhaps benefited from two landmarks this year in Singapore’s history. Mr Lee’s death was a chance for the city-state to recall how remarkable its economic success has been, after the unpromising start of being expelled from its short-lived federation with Malaysia 50 years ago. Similar reflections have been prompted by lavish celebrations this month of the country’s 50th birthday. When one party has been in power for so long, any display of patriotic fervour can be hard to distinguish from a political campaign.