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The gloves come on: virus-hit Singapore votes

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Singapore (AFP)

Wearing masks and gloves and being careful to observe social distancing, Singaporeans voted in a general election Friday as the city-state struggles to recover from a coronavirus outbreak.

After a nine-day campaign that took place mostly online as rallies were banned to cut the risk of infection, voters cast their ballots with a raft of strict safety measures in place.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0000 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm (1200 GMT), with final results expected early Saturday.

Voters have been given recommended time slots in which to cast ballots, with senior citizens the first to head to the polls in the morning.

The People's Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore for six decades, is assured of victory but faces an opposition with some popular candidates backed by the estranged brother of the country's premier.

The affluent financial hub had seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown, the government decided to call the poll.

The opposition has accused the PAP of being "irresponsible", but officials insist they have done enough to ensure the 2.65 million eligible voters can cast their ballots safely.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called COVID-19 "the crisis of a generation" and sought to project his party as a force for stability that can guide the country through tough times.

"Do not undermine a system that has served you well," he said on the campaign trail.

Trading hub Singapore has been hit hard by the pandemic, and the government has rolled out nearly Sg$100 billion ($72 billion) in stimulus packages.

Analysts say holding a vote now is a gamble and, with opinion polls banned during election campaigns in the tightly regulated country, it is not clear if the health crisis will boost or dent the government's support.

- Voters 'plugged in' -

While the government's rivals are weak -- they won only six parliamentary seats at the last election -- a move by Premier Lee's brother, Lee Hsien Yang, to join the opposition may help them.

The sibling is locked in a long-running feud with the prime minister over the legacy of their father, Singapore's late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, and has become a member of the Progress Singapore Party although he is not running for office himself.

"Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore," Lee Hsien Yang said in a Facebook post this week.

"It is not 'rocking the boat' but saving our boat from sinking."

His party is one of a small host of opposition groups taking on the PAP in the country of 5.7 million, with 93 parliamentary seats being contested.

The PAP, which oversaw Singapore's transformation into one of the world's wealthiest societies, enjoys solid support but has been accused of arrogance, gerrymandering and targeting its rivals.

During the campaign, several media outlets were hit with a controversial law against misinformation after carrying comments made by an opposition figure on the virus outbreak.

They were ordered to place warnings next to the comments, saying they contained false information.

Job security during the pandemic and the government's response to the outbreak have been key topics among voters.

After initially keeping the virus in check, Singapore saw major outbreaks in the foreign worker dorms. It has reported over 45,000 infections, including 26 deaths, and is slowly emerging from a two-month lockdown.

While on-the-ground campaigning was limited to candidates meeting voters in small groups, the online campaign has been lively, with thousands watching livestreamed speeches.

"Voters have been very plugged in," Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, told AFP.

"It has been an election which has captured the political imagination of many."

The poll is also a step in a carefully orchestrated transition of power to a new generation of leaders, with the 68-year-old prime minister expected to hand over his post to a hand-picked successor at some point afterwards.

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