SINGAPORE – Singapore's long-time ruling party won an overwhelming parliamentary majority in elections in the Southeast Asian city-state, but the opposition made historic gains after mounting its biggest challenge since independence in 1965, according to returns released early Sunday.
The ruling People's Action Party won 81 of the 87 parliament seats as it captured 60 percent of the 2 million votes cast in Saturday's election, the Elections Department said. The Workers Party won six seats, the most ever captured by the opposition.
While the results would be considered a major victory for most of the world's political parties, it represents a setback for Singapore's political establishment, which has enjoyed unrivaled power for five decades.
The PAP, which controlled 82 of 84 seats in the previous parliament, remains Singapore's dominant political force, but the Workers Party showed unprecedented strength for an opposition party and is positioned to provide an alternative voice in the new parliament.
The PAP has earned genuine respect, especially from older voters, for helping to boost gross domestic product per capita to $43,867 last year from $428 in 1960.
However, the PAP's share of the overall vote has dropped from 75 percent in 2001 as stagnant wages and higher living costs have fueled a widening income gap and resentment among poorer Singaporeans.
"This election marks a distinct shift in our political landscape which all of us must adjust to," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised news conference Sunday. "While the voters have given the PAP a strong mandate, many voters, including some of those who voted for us, clearly expressed their significant concerns both on the issues and our approach to government."
"Many Singaporeans wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach," Lee said. "We hear your voice. The PAP will learn from this election and put right what is wrong."
Leaders from the PAP spent the last days of the nine-day official campaign apologizing for policy mistakes and perceived arrogance. Opposition parties tapped growing voter discontent over soaring housing costs and a surge of foreign workers.
"This is a political landmark in modern Singapore," Workers Party General-Secretary Low Thia Khiang said in a speech to cheering supporters Sunday. "Your courage has made a real breakthrough for future generations. You've taken a real leap of faith."
Low was the Workers Party's lone representative in the last parliament.
The Workers Party and other opposition parties unveiled a crop of well-educated first-time candidates that helped shed the opposition's image as not ready for prime time.
The Workers Party's Chen Show Mao, who was part of a victorious five-candidate slate in the Aljunied district, represented the opposition's new credibility. Dubbed by local media as the opposition's "star catch," Chen is the head of the Beijing office of Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. He studied at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, and American Lawyer magazine named him one of its Dealmakers of the Year for shepherding Agricultural Bank of China's $22 billion initial public offering last year.
The losing PAP slate in Aljunied included Foreign Minister George Yeo — one of the PAP's top leaders and Cabinet members.
The opposition has never had more than four members of parliament. But in this election, six opposition parties challenged the PAP for a record 82 seats. Only 47 seats were contested in the 2006 election. In some past elections, the opposition failed to contest a majority of seats, ceding victory to the PAP even before the votes were tallied.
Opposition parties attracted up to 40,000 people at rallies during the last week, the biggest such crowds analysts can remember.
The PAP has traditionally campaigned on its record of strong economic growth and an efficient and corruption-free bureaucracy. However, this time it appeared to have been caught off-guard by the level of resentment of middle- and working-class voters who feel the government has not been responsive enough.
Lee apologized earlier this week for government mistakes, such as failing to build enough public housing and not expanding the transportation network to accommodate a large increase in foreign workers. Housing prices on the island are up about 70 percent since 2006.
PAP candidates were also put on the defensive by complaints from the opposition and voters that government leaders are sometimes arrogant and high-handed.
Lee is the son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, who remains an influential Cabinet minister and ran unopposed in the Tanjong Pagar district he has represented since 1955.