It seems that the possibility of multi-cornered contest for Punggol East by-election is very real. And it seems to me as well that the WP don’t mind having multi-cornered contest for this time around, and it might be the best for them politically.
First, Punggol East is not Hougang, and it is not a given for them to win the BE even if they have a 1-to-1 contest with the PAP. PAP are still the incumbent party here, albeit not a strong one (54.5-41-4.5 margin in 2011). There might be a chance of WP winning, considering the BE is caused by PAP MP scandal and Punggol East SMC also borders Aljunied GRC, so there will be some spillover effect. Hougang BE, which was caused by a similar scandal (extramarital affair of the incumbent MP) netted +2.7 points to the challenger (PAP). So it is not impossible to have a 4.5 point drop for the incumbent here, especially when the ongoing sagas are still hot (primarily AIM but also other recurrent issues like the never-ending train breakdowns, record-breaking COEs, still-increasing HDB prices, etc.) which tend to disadvantage the ruling party. Unfavorable conditions for the government + unfavorable condition for the incumbent party (WP) in Hougang netted 2.7 points for PAP. Unfavorable conditions for the government + unfavorable condition for the incumbent party (PAP) in Punggol East might net more for the opposition. There is still a chance to win here (unlike, for example, contesting in the West, where PAP enjoy 2-to-1 majority in votes). Still, the chance is low and the odds are still on PAP even if WP were to have a 1-to-1 contest with them.
Next, although the result in 2011 should have convinced the other opposition parties that WP is the definitive second party in Singapore, apparently the lesson is not fully rooted yet. So perhaps you need the second election to really drive home the message. The best possible result for WP is for PAP to win but getting less than 50% of the votes and WP in the second place and to be clearly above the third, fourth, etc. In that case WP can point out that actually they can win if the contest is 1-to-1 without other parties (and indirectly push the blame to the other parties). And they will surely use this again and again in 2016 whenever another party wants to contest in a constituency where WP plan to contest as well. And that the people will call out the other political party to step down from the contest.
So, best possible scenario for each party (PAP to lose in a multi-cornered contest is not counted as a possible scenario):
1. PAP: Win again with larger majority than 2011 election, so that they will be able to point out that they have reclaimed the mandate again after two recent ‘defeats’ (Presidential Election, relatively, and Hougang BE, literally).
2. WP: PAP to win but with less than 50% of votes, and to be in the second place and clearly above the rest so that they could have straight contests with PAP wherever they want to in 2016. For example, in a 3-way contest with SDP and PAP: 45-40-15.
3. SDP: PAP to win but with less than 50% of votes, and to be close enough to WP (I don’t think SDP can get the 2nd place) so that they could argue that indeed Singapore needs an alternative opposition party aside from WP. PAP-WP-SDP: 45-30-25.
4. The rest: Getting back their deposit.
(The degree of political opportunism is just amazing, though. SDP never contested in Punggol East, ever. And suddenly they show up there and want to contest it in the name of having ‘true’ opposition in the parliament. RP is even worse. Kenneth Jeyaretnam said in 2011 that he will move to West Coast if he wins West Coast GRC. Now he said that he will move to Punggol East if he wins the Punggol East BE. Zero ground work will never win an election. That’s why there is a difference between political activists and politician. LTK, WP chief, is a politician. CSJ, SDP chief, is a political activist. And not every political activist could become a politician.)
Note that I said that the best possibility for WP in this election is actually to lose the BE in the clear second place but with PAP gaining less than 50%. And that’s because I don’t think WP will gain much if they win Punggol East (if we entertain the delusional idea that an opposition party could win in a multi-cornered contest right now). They have their hands full already in running a GRC. Winning Punggol East will only heighten people’s expectation of them, perhaps to take over the government in 2016, which they won’t be ready yet (if ever). Note that the AIM saga started because Aljunied GRC got a red grade for the collection of town council fees. WP of course explained that’s because they needed to re-build the entire computer system from scratch after AIM terminated their contract. But the case still highlights how difficult it is for an opposition party to manage a town council (especially if you are screwed up indefinitely by the incumbent party), let alone the entire country.
(The current town councils arrangement is really bizarre. WP should aim for the comprehensive reform of the town council system itself. Town councils shouldn’t change because of election result. They must remain the same no matter who won the election. Moreover, although it’s true that an MP represents his district, it doesn’t mean that he/she should run it. The ones who should run it are civil servants, not political parties. The current arrangement is definitely biased for the ruling party, since they would enjoy the experience that comes with years of governing town councils. So, as for now, I guess WP have no choice but to work within the current arrangement, which means that they must be ready to set up everything from scratch again whenever you win a district from the incumbent party. And it explains the slow approach of WP, which might appear disappointing and too timid to other opposition supporters. I think WP realize that this is the only way to go for now. The other parties might appear gung ho now, but they never have to run a real day-to-day governing.)
On the other hand, WP can’t just stay away from the contest, since it has contested it before in 2011 and proved that it can get decent margin of votes with a relatively unknown candidate. Not to mention that it also trounced the third party, SDA, so much so that SDA lost their deposit.
That’s why I think it is politically better for them to have multi-cornered contest this time around. They will be able to establish their position as the 2nd party and they will have an excuse when they lost (while pushing all the blame to other parties). Somehow, I think WP are smiling when they hear that SDP die die want to contest the by-election.
Politics, whether you like it or not, is essentially pragmatic.