I had blogged earlier this year about the Yaw Shin Leong affair and my stance on the extra marital affairs and the duties and functions of elected representatives. I don't think that Parliamentarians and ministers should be judged on the basis of what goes on in their private lives. What is important is the way in which the public official conducts his duties. http://www.article14.blogspot.sg/2012/02/politics-of-affairs.html
Now that Palmer's seat is vacant, we again get to visit the question of whether a by-election should or would be held. After Yaw Shin Leong's resignation, several members of the PAP made public statements about how the calling of a by-election is entirely at the discretion of the PM. At that time, my view of the Constitutional provision on the filling of vacancies in Parliament was pretty much straightforward. Article 49 states that the vacancy "shall be filled by election" and that to me (and most observers) was clearly denying any discretion for the PM. The only discretion that he could have was to delay the time within which the by-election had to be called. http://article14.blogspot.sg/2012/02/by-election-when-not-whether.html .
However, the Vellama case that sought to obtain a determinative pronouncement on the interpretation of Art 49, has complicated matters somewhat. When the Hougang seat became vacant, the PAP leadership was getting heat from the people and also from the Court application. Eventually, it relented and called for a by-election. As it turned out, the High Court ruled against Vellama and the current legally affirmed interpretation is that the PM has discretion to decide whether and when to call a by-election. I disagree with the Court's reasoning in that case and I blogged about this a few days ago.
With Michael Palmer's resignation, there will be renewed calls for a by-election. There are already facebook postings calling for a by-election in Punggol. Workers Party (which was slow to comment on the SMRT drivers' strike) has already issued a comment on Palmer's resignation and called for by-elections to be held. The Worker's Party's facebook posting states:
"The Workers' Party has noted the announcement today that the Speaker of Parliament, Mr Michael Palmer, has resigned from the People's Action Party.
By virtue of Article 46 of the Constitution, Mr Palmer's Parliamentary seat for Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) has become vacant.
In order that the residents of Punggol East SMC are properly represented, the Workers' Party urges the Prime Minister to call a by-election in the constituency as soon as possible.
In the last General Election, the Workers' Party contested Punggol East SMC. The Workers' Party is ready to offer a choice to the voters of Punggol East SMC again in the by-election."
The PAP government's reaction to calls for a by-election would be interesting to watch. Previously, without the benefit of the High Court judgment, they were already adament about the existence of a discretion. Now, it would be easy for the PM to hide behind the legal interpretation and state that there is no legal requirement for him to call for a by election.
But, what the PM must remind himself about is the fact that if indeed it is legally the PM's discretion, then politically he must exercise that discretion in a fair and reasonable manner in order not to contribute to a further reduction in the PAP's political capital. GE 2011 may seem like a distant memory to the political leadership of the PAP. They must remind themselves that part of the reason why they did not lose more of the popular vote was that an apology was extended midway through the election campaign. There must have been a sizeable number of voters that were swayed by the apology. But, 18 months after the general elections, people are beginning to get a sense that no major policy changes are lined up. There has been more of an attempt at perception management rather than genuine policy adjustment. I am sure that as we stand today the PAP has less political capital than it did during the general elections.
A decision by the PM not to call for by-elections at Punggol East would add to the loss of political capital. It is not prudent for the by-election to be postponed indefinitely. That would be one more issue for the opposition to raise at the next GE about the high-handedness of the PAP.
Of course, calling for a by-election at Punggol East represents a high risk for the PAP in terms of losing another seat in Parliament. Palmer won Punggol East with 54.54% of the vote. A vote swing of 5% would be needed for PAP to lose this seat. In the last GE, there were a few constituencies that witnessed vote swings of between 10% to 14% (e.g. Joo Chiat = 14%) against the PAP. But, that swing has to be seen in the light of the general election cycle (spanning 5 years) and the unusually strong anti-PAP sentiments on the ground. It is possible that this sentiment had already been fully milked during GE 2011 and in Punggol East today we might just see a marginal swing away from the PAP of 2% to 3%.
PAP could make the prudent calculation that there is a possibility of retaining Punggol East and at the same time coming across as not doing business as usual by doing the democratic thing: calling for by-elections. The ball is in your court Prime Minister.
(Meanwhile, Mdm Vellama's appeal in the Court of Appeal is still pending. Things could still play out very differently and the court could rule that a by-election is mandatory.)