GOVERNMENT handouts, attacks on opposition parties and an expected giveaway budget mean only one thing, say analysts in Singapore: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is getting ready to call an election.
The son of independence leader Lee Kuan Yew inherited the city-state's top job when Goh Chok Tong stepped down in August 2004 and by law parliamentary polls must be held by June 2007.
But healthy growth figures and a recent multi-million dollar package of handouts for low wage earners suggest Lee is getting ready to call the election as early as June, observers and opposition figures say.
"Some people say there's so much good news this year that elections must come. My answer is maybe, maybe not," Lee, 53, said Sunday during a visit to his constituency, where he handed out food hampers to the needy.
Lee has insisted that assistance programs proposed for the affluent island's poorer people are not meant to win votes, but the opposition and analysts think otherwise.
Steve Chia, secretary-general of the opposition National Solidarity Party, said the measures were clearly aimed at bolstering support for the ruling party ahead of the polls, which he expected to be called by June.
For another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party, it does not matter when the polls are held.
"They just want to create the facade that this is a democratic system where the elections are free and fair when it is not," he said.
The People's Action Party (PAP) has been in power since independence in 1965 and holds all but two of the 84 elected seats in parliament.
Critics say it has repeatedly won elections through its control of the press and clampdowns on dissent, with its fiercest opponents sidelined by having to pay massive defamation damages.
But the party says its strong economic record and Singapore's stability in a turbulent region explain its popularity with the electorate. The PAP's share of the popular vote stood at 75 percent in the last elections, held in 2001.
Earlier this month, a government committee proposed a package costing up to S$1 billion (US$600 million) to help low-wage earners -- further confirming for opposition politicians that elections were on the way.
The measures, which need cabinet approval, are aimed at helping workers upgrade their skills, own homes and finance their children's education. They include cash bonuses pegged to salaries.
There is also a proposal for 700,000 Singaporeans who have done military service to receive cash handouts as a "gesture of appreciation" from the government.
The strength of the economy has also fed speculation that Lee will take advantage of the upturn to call a snap election.
Singapore's economy outperformed forecasts with 5.7 percent growth in 2005 against the official target of 5.0 percent.
Lee, who is also finance minister, will present the budget to March 2007 in parliament on February 17. Analysts say elections could be held weeks later.
"Going by the proposed measures that have been splashed in the last few weeks, (the budget) looks to be a spectacular one in terms of the dollars and cents involved," said Song Seng Wun, regional economist with CIMB-GK research house.
"I suppose I can call it an election budget."
Lee has already begun attacking the opposition, in particular the Workers' Party, describing sections of its manifesto, which called for living costs to be lowered and a minimum wage to be set, as "dangerous, critical ideas which really destroy fundamental principles on which Singapore works."
The prime minister has said he does not expect to match the 75 percent vote won by the PAP under Goh at the 2001 elections, held in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
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Agence France Presse Election seen on horizon in Singapore 24 January 2006