Monthly Archives: May 2013
A provincial election was held in British Columbia (Canada) on May 14, 2013. The 85 seats in the provincial Legislative Assembly are elected to four-year terms (fixed election dates) by FPTP in single-member constituencies.
A distinct political culture
British Columbia is a Western province, but it is distinct from the other three ‘landlocked’ Western provinces and forms a fairly unique entity unto itself. The politics of the three other Western provinces were marked, in the early twentieth century, by agrarianism and Prairie populism in the form of the Progressive or United Farmers parties; years later, despite major political and social changes in these provinces, the political culture still bears the stamp of agrarianism and Prairie populism. British Columbia, however, was never marked by such agrarianism. Instead, BC has been defined as a “company province” by some, referring to the province’s historical dependence on the extraction of natural resources (forestry, fishing, farming, mining/minerals including coal). The fortunes of the different industries have risen and fallen (fishing and farming are much less important, while natural gas, mining, lumber or oil pipelines are more important), but the general structure of the economy – tied to the extraction of primary resources – has not changed much, notwithstanding the contemporary tertiarization of the economy (services, tourism, financial industry etc).
BC’s political culture has been shaped by its history as a company province. One particular element, tied to its economic structure, which has coloured BC’s political culture is a strong, militant and politically active organized labour movement. The British and American working-class immigrants who came to work in BC’s coal and metal mining industries at the turn of the last centuries brought with them ‘radical’ ideologies (such as socialism) and militant trade unionism. The outlook of the employers, the poor and harsh working conditions of the working-class, insecurities linked to Asian immigration and the nature of provincial politics post-Confederation create a strong class cleavage and led workers to organize politically to remedy problems which they felt could not be remedied by union activism alone. Farmers, however, never developed a class consciousness as in the other Western provinces. They were a fairly comfortable social group (hence more favourable to traditional conservative politics) which did not share the economic and political grievances of Albertan or Saskatchewan farmers. Secondly, BC’s physical characteristics (geographic features which long inhibited communication and promoted isolation) and the diversity of its agriculture (grain in the Peace River basin, fruits in the Okanagan, vegetables in the Lower Fraser Valley etc) hindered the formation of a farmers’ class consciousness and agrarian ideology.
As a result of these social conditions, socialism quickly became a potent political force in BC (unlike in the other provinces, despite the social radicalism of some Gingers in the Progressive or United Farmers parties) while agrarianism and rural populism never found significant support in the province. By way of example, BC elected Socialist MLAs as early as 1903 (Labour candidates had won seats since the 1890s) but the federal Progressive Party only won 12% and 3 seats in the 1921 federal election.
Class and regional antagonisms have defined BC politics for most of its history. The strong class cleavage has created (starting in the 1940s) a two-party system between the social democratic New Democrats (NDP) and a “free-market party” (currently the BC Liberals, formerly the BC Social Credit Party, SoCreds). Reinforcing the class cleavage is the fact that, historically, BC has also attracted entrepreneurial capitalists and rags-to-riches self-made capitalists. Corporate business has a long history of directly intervening in provincial politics, to guard off “socialist collectivism” or to ensure favourable (preferential) treatment for businesses and individuals by the government.
Regional antagonisms have not created political parties, but they have played a large role in electoral behaviour and partisan strategies. About three-fifths of the province’s population lives in the Lower Mainland, an extensively urbanized metropolitan conglomeration driven by the city of Vancouver. There has always been a distinct divide between the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island (which includes the capital city, Victoria) and the BC Interior. In recent years, BC has seen a massive influx of immigration – 27% of the province’s population are visible minorities (non-white) – most either Chinese or South Asian (predominantly Punjabi).
Reinforcing this internal regional divide is a lingering sentiment of Western alienation shared with the Prairie provinces and Alberta.
Between 1871 (when BC joined Confederation) and 1903, provincial politics were non-partisan, with no officially recognized factions although candidates and MLAs tended to align with either the ‘government’ or ‘opposition’. Provincial governments busied themselves at extracting concessions from the federal government (such as railways) or distributing railway charters and timber/mining rights to friends. As such, they often sought to be on the good side of the federal government, and since the federal government during this era was almost away Conservative, most provincial cabinet ministers tended to be de facto Conservatives although this was by no means absolute – Tories and Liberals were to be found on both sides of the aisle. By the turn of the century, non-partisan government became an unstable mess of bickering parochial interests – this not only made stable government hard, it also inhibited economic growth and allowed organized labour to flourish in a context of a fluid legislature. Partisan politics, divided along traditional pan-Canadian lines of Liberal and Conservative, were adopted in 1903.
The Conservatives won the first election, beginning an era of Tory ascendancy which lasted until 1916. At the outset, the Conservative government encouraged railway development, resource extraction, Asian exclusion and ‘better terms’ for the province through a ‘Fight Ottawa’ agenda. The Tories were therefore rewarded with ever-larger majorities in the 1907, 1909 and 1912 elections – to the point where, in 1912, the Liberal Party won no seats and two Socialist MLAs formed the official opposition to the Conservative government. This era, however, was suddenly halted in the 1916 election. After Premier Richard McBride’s resignation, the Tory government was hurt by a wartime recession in the province and a resurgent Liberal Party which appealed to the new progressive reform movement (which supported women’s suffrage, prohibition, honest government). The Liberals struck back, taking 36 seats to the Conservatives’ 9 seats in the 1916 election.
The Liberals remained in power until 1928. Successive Liberal Premiers pursued a cautious pro-business agenda all the while trying to channel the new progressive wave, in the form of women’s suffrage, alcohol prohibition or attempts to fight patronage. Unlike the Tories before 1916, the Liberal majority in the legislature shrank in both the 1920 and 1924 elections. In 1924, the Liberals lost their majority in the face of an ephemeral ‘Provincial Party’, a curious alliance of dissident Tories (Alexander McRae) and elements of the weak local branch of the United Farmers. The Provincial Party, which denounced corruption and the existing party system, won 24% of the popular vote (but only three seats) while the left (Labour) took roughly 12%. Liberal Premier John Oliver, in office since 1918, lost his seat, as did Conservative leader (and former Premier) William J. Bowser. The high ‘protest’ vote in this election testified to the electoral strength of populism or cynicism in BC politics.
An appearance of normality was restored in 1928, when the Conservatives, now led by the inoffensive Simon Fraser Tolmie, swept to victory with 35 seats against only 12 for the incumbent Liberal government. The Conservative victory in 1928 was, ultimately, a godsend for the Liberals because the Tories were the ones in charge when the Depression hit. The Conservatives were both unwilling and unable to counter the Great Depression forcefully, as demanded by most voters, and the Conservatives disintegrated by the time of the 1933 election.
Indeed, things had gotten to the point where the Conservative association did not even bother nominating candidates in 1933, leaving incumbents – including Tolmie – to run as independents or under odd labels. In any case, the divided Tories were swept out and the Liberals, led by the reformist Thomas Dufferin Pattullo, returned to power with a large majority government. However, the 1933 election was a watershed because the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) became the official opposition, with over 30% of the vote – although only 7 out of 47 seats. With the exception of the 1937 election, the CCF and later the NDP have always formed either the government or the official opposition in the provincial legislature. The emergence of a ‘socialist’ party as the main opposition went on to structure BC politics along the contemporary NDP vs. ‘free-market party’ lines we know today.
Pattullo, elected on a platform of “practical idealism” which promised wide-ranging social reforms (new labour laws, welfare, health insurance etc), remained in office until 1941, although his reformist ardour cooled with years in office. He was returned in the 1937 election, which saw the Conservatives reclaim second place for one last time. In large part, this was due to a schism in CCF ranks between Robert Connell, the party’s first leader, and a more radical ‘Marxist’ faction which took control of the CCF in 1936. Robert Connell came from the League for Social Reconstruction, a middle-class group influenced by the social gospel and wary of socialist politics. However, he was toppled by ‘radicals’ with roots in the Socialist Party, which had been strong in BC (but in no other province). The CCF, now led by the more ‘radical’ Harold Winch, reclaimed Official Opposition in the 1941 election.
With Pattullo’s Liberal reformism dead on the side of the road (relief payments abandoned, failure to implement medical insurance) and the CCF ascendant, the idea of a Liberal-Conservative coalition to face the ‘socialist threat’ became popular. Pattullo opposed the idea, but he lost that fight to pro-coalitionist Liberals at a 1941 party convention and was replaced by John Hart, who quickly welcomed the Conservatives in his government. The impetus behind the formation of the Coalition was, naturally, the ‘CCF threat’, which was becoming ever more potent. In the 1941 election, the CCF had won the most votes (33.4%) and doubled its seat count from 7 to 14. The Liberals and Conservatives had ended almost evenly matched in the popular vote (32.9% and 30.9% respectively), although the Liberals won 21 seats to the Tories’ 12. However, if the anti-socialist vote remained split, an ever-stronger CCF might realistically be able to win the 1945 election.
The LibCon Coalition worked admirably in the 1945 and 1949 elections. In 1945, the CCF increased its support to 37.6%, but because of the coalition arrangement (which won 55.8%), it took only 10 seats against 37 for the coalition. In 1949, the coalition won an even larger majority (39-7) with 61.4% of the vote. Under Hart’s premiership, the province undertook an ambitious program of rural electrification, hydroelectric and highway construction. He was succeeded, in 1947, by Byron Johnson, who instituted a health insurance scheme which quickly fell apart.
However, the coalition was undermined by incessant bickering between Liberals and Conservatives after Hart’s retirement in 1947 (and, in 1946, the death of the pro-coalition Tory leader RJ Maitland). Conservative leader Herbert Anscomb favoured the coalition, but he insisted on becoming Premier after Hart’s retirement. The coalition question started dividing the Conservatives, and the Liberals had grown cocky after the success of the coalition in 1945 and 1949. To aggravate matters further, neither the federal Conservatives or Liberals were all that keen on the coalition between their two provincial branches. In early 1952, Johnson fired Anscomb from cabinet, effectively breaking up the coalition.
However, to counter the ‘CCF threat’ and ensure that the CCF remained out of power despite the division of the two ‘anti-socialist’ parties, the two parties agreed to a new electoral system – the alternative vote (AV/IRV) – whereby Liberal voters would, the idea held, give their second preferences to a Conservative (and vice-versa) to ensure that the CCF could not win a majority of seats. In a great episode of ‘electoral reform backfiring on the politicians’, the new system allowed a third party – the BC Social Credit League (SoCred) to sneak up the middle, rake up first or second preferences from anti-socialist voters and emerge as the winner. The CCF won the most vote (30.8%) and took 18 seats, while the SoCreds took 27.2% and 19 seats. The Liberals and Conservatives were crushed, with only 6 and 4 seats respectively (on 23.5% and 16.8% support respectively).
The BC SoCred, prior to 1952, was a tiny inconsequential movement effectively controlled by the Alberta’s SoCred government. Starting in 1950, the party elected a new leader who purged the troublemakers and cranks, and seized a golden opportunity as the LibCon coalition floundered. The party welcomed two dissident MLAs, including W.A.C. Bennett, a former Conservative MLA who had quit the party in 1951 after two unsuccessful runs for the party’s leadership. After the SoCred victory in 1952, W.A.C. Bennett – who had absolutely no interest (or even knowledge) of original social credit monetary theories – became Premier. The party’s victorious 1952 campaign, however, was controlled by the Alberta SoCred and led by a federal MP from Alberta, Ernest Hansell.
The Albertan SoCred movement (elected in 1935) was born out of the social dislocation bred by the Great Depression and represented a populist protest movement (in that it actually believed in the social credit theories it campaigned on in 1935), infused with Christian evangelical and moralistic values. In contrast, the BC SoCreds came to power in a time of relative economic prosperity and it did not promise a radical, Utopist renovation of the whole financial system. After all, the Alberta SoCreds had tried and failed to implement actual social credit policies. Finally, the Alberta SoCreds always retained a strong Christian evangelical/fundamentalist element. While the BC SoCreds had a similar evangelical strain and campaigned using Christian/moralistic rhetoric, it was much less accented than in the Alberta party. The party did, however, perform strongly in regions like Chilliwack, Langley and the Cariboo which have a high percentage of Christian evangelicals.
The BC SoCreds exploited widespread disillusionment and resentment with the existing party system, particularly the incessant bickering between Liberals and Conservatives, the corruption in both parties and the generally mediocre record of the coalition governments. In 1952, SoCred had even been able to gain votes from CCF voters, whose distaste of the LibCon coalition exceeded any mistrust of the new right-wing party.
Although the BC SoCreds claimed to be a broad, cross-class alliance which was equally as opposed to the “forces of monopoly” than to socialism, the SoCreds quickly became the right-wing ‘free-market’ and anti-CCF/NDP party, albeit one with a more rural and slightly populist electorate. Up until the 1970s, the SoCred received its strongest levels of support in rural areas, while being weaker in (under-represented) urban areas, notably Vancouver or Victoria.
After his tiny minority win in 1952, Bennett quickly dissolved the legislature and called an election to win a majority government. Campaigning on the need for a ‘strong government’ and promising only ‘good government’, Bennett’s gamble worked and the SoCreds won a majority with 28 (out of 48) seats and 37.8% support. The Liberals won only 4 seats, the Tories were reduced to a mere MLA. The AV system was quickly abandoned and replaced, again, by FPTP.
The realignment of BC politics, with the SoCreds replacing the Liberals and Conservatives as the ‘free-market’ (anti-CCF) party was complete. Bennett’s SoCreds won another five successive election, each time with a large majority in the legislature with the CCF, later NDP, as the official opposition. While the Liberals held on to a rump of support (20% and 2-5 seats in each election), the Conservatives won no seats after 1953 and were dead by the 1960s.
Bennett’s twenty-year reign saw a sustained economic boom in the forestry, mining, and energy sectors. The SoCred government maintained good relations with its base – farmers, ranchers, traders, small businessmen and sectors of the middle-classes. On the other hand, his government was an unwavering foe of the unions, and it passed strict labour laws which weakened the power of unions and curtailed union activism (banning secondary boycotts, compulsory arbitration in essential industries). The union movement moved even closer to the NDP and minced no words in denouncing the government’s labour policies, but for the most part, the SoCred government maintained relative social peace in the province, buoyed by prosperity.
Notwithstanding its free-market orientation, the SoCred government pursued a fairly interventionist economic agenda. Bennett created a number of important Crown corporations (BC Ferries, BC Hydro), finally finished the BC Rail network, invested significantly in infrastructure (highways, roads), launched major hydroelectric dam projects and advocated for universal healthcare. The government’s policies were popular throughout the BC Interior, where infrastructure development made good politics and created a loyal electoral clientele for the government. Many working-class voters, provided with jobs in a period of economic growth, turned away from the NDP and backed the SoCreds.
Meanwhile, the SoCreds did what was expected of them by big business: create a climate favourable to investment, and defend the province from the socialist bogey. Although the relations between business and the SoCreds were not as smooth and amiable as relations between the Liberals/Conservatives and business had been in the past, the anti-NDP business community saw in Bennett and his government the sole alternative to the NDP, and accordingly directed its funds to the SoCreds – in the process, draining both the Liberals and Conservatives of funds.
The Bennett government created a myth of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and a ‘debt-free province’, which appealed to right-wing voters. In reality, the ‘debt-free province’ claims were belied by the existence of “two sets of books” whereby the Premier classified the debts of government agencies as “contingent liabilities”.
The W.A.C. Bennett era ended in 1972, with the victory of Dave Barrett’s NDP. The NDP won 38 seats (out of 55) and 39.6%, while SoCred support fell over 15 points and left the government with only 10 seats. In large part, the SoCred defeat was due to a sudden resurgence in Conservative support – out of almost nowhere, the PCs took 12.7% and won 2 seats, while the Liberals held their 5 seats.
Barrett was an ambitious Premier, whose brief three-year premiership saw a spurt of legislative election unseen since the 1930s. The NDP government expanded the public sector, reformed the welfare system (Pharmacare, minimum income), established a provincial Labour Relations Board, implemented public auto insurance (ICBC, still in place today) and created a land commission to regulate the use and sale of farmland. Barrett’s government was hurt by an economic slump and he was criticized for taking the province from surplus to debt. The NDP’s policies antagonized powerful business groups (insurance, mining companies) and led to a re-polarization of the electorate when the government faced the people in 1975.
Although the NDP’s support held steady in the election, winning 39.2% of the vote, the government was defeated as the right-of-centre vote coalesced around the SoCreds, now led by W.A.C. Bennett’s son, Bill Bennett. The SoCreds had been able to attract Liberal and Conservative dissidents to the party, and in the election, the Liberals and Conservatives both saw their support collapse by about 9% each and they were both left with only a single seat. The SoCreds won 49.3% and 35 seats, against only 18 for the NDP. Hence began the second era of SoCred governance in BC.
In contrast to his father’s more interventionist policies, Bennett Jr began with a policy of “restraint” which slashed social services, reviewed labour laws, cut spending on education and privatized certain Crown assets. Nevertheless, near the end of his tenure (1986), Bennett oversaw the completion of several megaprojects meant to stimulate the economy – Vancouver Expo86, the Coquihalla Highway and the Vancouver SkyTrain. Bennett was reelected in 1979 and 1983. When he retired in 1986, he was replaced by Bill Vander Zalm, a charismatic but eccentric MLA from the party’s social conservative wing. After 1975, the BC SoCreds’ dominance rested on a tenuous alliance of social and fiscal conservatives, with fiscal conservatives like Bennett dominating the party. Bill Vander Zalm won another term in office for SoCred in the 1986 election, with 49% against 42.6% for the NDP (47 seats to 22).
Bill Vander Zalm’s government was quickly embroiled in a number of scandals which badly tarnished his party’s image and led to the collapse of the SoCreds. He was involved in a conflict of interest scandal after he sold his Fantasy Gardens theme park to Tan Yu, Filipino Chinese gambling kingpin. A Chinese-Canadian entrepreneur involved in the deal leaked lurid details of parties and bags of money from Yu to Vander Zalm. The scandal forced Vander Zalm to resign in disgrace in 1991. Unfortunately for the SoCreds’ fate, he was succeeded by Rita Johnston, who was closely associated with the scandal-plagued Premier.
The 1991 election marked another realignment in BC politics. The NDP, led by Mike Harcourt, won a large majority with 51 seats (40.7% of the vote). The SoCreds were decimated, losing half of their vote and falling into third place with a rump caucus of 7 MLAs. In the process, the BC Liberals – which had won all of 6.7% in 1986 and had not won a single seat since 1975 – soared to win 33.3% and 17 seats. Liberal leader Gordon Wilson received a major boost after a strong performance in a debate against Harcourt and Johnston. Unlike the Alberta SoCreds who had taken some time to die off completely after their electoral defeat, the BC SoCreds disintegrated and basically died right after the 1991 election.
A splutterign economy in the early 1990s forced Harcourt’s NDP government to move to the right, with the Premier lashing out at “welfare cheats” in a televised address and major cutbacks in welfare. The government also clashed with environmental groups, and, later, a rogue aboriginal group which occupied farmland in the Cariboo (Gustafsen Lake siege). Mike Harcourt was forced to resign in February 1996 after the “Bingogate” scandal, in which an NDP MLA had use charity bingo money for party funding. Harcourt was not implicated and later exonerated, but chose to take full political responsibility. Months before the June 1996 election, Glen Clark replaced Harcourt as Premier.
The Liberals, led by Gordon Wilson, proved fairly ineffective as the official opposition after the 1991 election. After revelations that he was having an affair with another Liberal MLA, Wilson was forced to call a leadership convention in 1993. Gordon Campbell, the mayor of Vancouver since 1986, easily won the party leadership while Wilson, who finished a distant third, later quit the Liberals to create the centrist Progressive Democratic Alliance (PDA). Under Gordon Campbell, the party shifted to the right and established itself as the sole centre-right alternative to the NDP.
The BC Liberals (as they became known, to further distinguish them from the federal party) actually won the popular vote in the 1996 election, with 41.8% against 39.5% for the NDP. However, the Liberals performed poorly in metro Vancouver and lost some close races in the BC Interior (where they were hurt by Campbell’s promise to sell BC Rail), meaning that they ended up with 33 seats to the NDP’s 39. The Liberals were also hurt by the division of the non-NDP vote: to their right, the Reform Party won 9.3% and 2 seats, while Wilson’s PDA took 5.7% and one seat.
The NDP’s second term in office proved to be a disaster which continues to haunt the NDP to this day. Glen Clark’s premiership was marred by a number of major scandals or fiascos. Most prominent among them were the Fast Ferry Scandal and Casinogate.
In an effort to revitalize a shipbuilding industry, Clark’s NDP government undertook a fast ferry initiative to upgrade BC Ferries’ fleet with high-speed ferries which would be built locally. The whole affair quickly turned into a mismanaged fiasco, with massive cost overruns, delivery delays and many malfunctioning vessels. In 1999, the RCMP searched the Premier’s house (televised live) in what became ‘Casinogate’ – the Premier was later found guilty (in 2002) of accepting favours (free house renovations) in return for approving a casino application.
Following these allegations, Clark resigned in August 1999 and was succeeded, following an acrimonious three-way leadership race, by former Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh (who had generally been critical of Clark). Ujjal Dosanjh himself was personally popular and the province’s economy was doing well, but he was unable to save the NDP from oblivion (although he did increase its polling numbers from 15% to 21%).
In May 2001, the BC NDP suffered one of the worst defeats for any incumbent government in Canadian history, winning only two seats (not including Dosanjh’s seat) and a paltry 21.6% of the vote. Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals swept to power in a massive landslide, taking 77 seats and a massive 57.6% of the vote. The Green Party, previously marginal, took 12.4% of the vote but it failed to win any seats. Even the Marijuana Party managed to win 3.2% by running a full slate of candidates (cue the BC weed jokes).
Gordon Campbell generally governed from the right during his years in office. Upon taking office, he cut the personal income tax by 25% across the board, cut the corporate income tax and eliminated the NDP’s corporate capital tax. To finance tax cuts and balance the books, the Liberal government implemented austerity measures which included reductions in social services and welfare rolls, deregulation, the sale of government assets (the Fast Ferry fleet was auctioned off), reducing the size of the civil service and closing some government offices. One of his most controversial decisions came in 2003, when he reneged on an electoral promise not to sell BC Rail. BC Rail was eventually sold to Canadian National (CN) in November 2003. BC Rail would become a bit like the BC Liberals’ equivalent of Fast Ferry (though far less damaging). Law enforcement quickly uncovered evidence of illegal or improper conduct of various government officials, consultants and BC Liberal insiders. In 2009, it was revealed that a BC Liberal insider had received nearly $300,000 from BC Rail between 2002 and 2004.
During his first term, Gordon Campbell suffered a personal embarrassment and a stain on his image when he was arrested for DUI while on vacation in Hawaii. His mugshot was published by the Hawaiian police and he was fined US$913.
However, BC’s economy remained strong and the government could boast the best job creation record in Canada. In 2005, the BC Liberals won a second term with a reduced (more ‘normal’) majority, taking 45.8% and 46 seats against 41.5% and 33 seats for the NDP. The Green vote fell to 9.2%.
Although some of his environmental policies during his first term were criticized by environmental groups, Campbell’s Liberal government implemented a carbon tax, which is now set at a final price of $30 per tonne of CO2e emissions. Although some on the right opposed the new at the outset, a movement which contributed to the revitalization of the moribund BC Conservatives in the 2009 election, the carbon tax was generally well accepted as the government used revenues to lower corporate and income taxes.
Campbell’s Liberals won a third term in 2009, with basically the same results as in 2005: 49 seats to the NDP’s 35, 45.8% to the NDP’s 42.2%. The Greens won 8.2%, while the BC Conservatives put forward a slate of 24 candidates and won 2.1%, doing quite well in conservative ridings in the BC Interior (5-10%, 20.2% in Boundary-Similkameen).
Gordon Campbell’s popularity tanked shortly thereafter, when his government announced that it would introduce a Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), a 12% sales tax which would replace the 5% federal GST and the 7% Provincial Sales Tax. Three Atlantic provinces had already introduced the HST in the 1990s, and BC joined Ontario in moving towards the HST in 2010. While the introduction of the HST was met with strong popular opposition in both provinces (because it increased taxes on some items, including gas), BC showed its populist and contrarian streak by rallying behind a petition to repeal the tax, spearheaded by former SoCred Premier Bill Vander Zalm. In Ontario, meanwhile, voters bided their time when the tax was installed.
In November 2010, Campbell, facing an imminent caucus revolt over his style and the political backlash from the HST, announced his resignation. In a leadership contest in February 2011, he was succeeded by Christy Clark, a Deputy Premier under Campbell’s first term who became a radio talk show host in 2005. Clark ran as the outsider and populist “families first” candidate, and supported the initiative referendum on abolishing the HST. Clark’s victory was not met with great enthusiasm within her caucus – only one sitting Liberal MLA had supported her; most Liberal MLAs had backed either finance minister Kevin Falcon (the more right-wing candidate) or George Abbott (the more left-wing and rural candidate).
In a mail-in referendum in the summer of 2011, BC voters rejected the HST, with 54.7% of voters voting in favour of abolishing the HST and replacing it with the old GST/PST system.
Christy Clark enjoyed a short-lived honeymoon with voters in the spring of 2011, leading to speculation that she might call an early election in the summer or fall of 2011 to win a mandate for herself. However, the defeat of the HST in the summer led her to scrap those plans and indefinitely postponed an election call. Liberal support collapsed to the mid-to-low 20s in late 2011 and 2012 as she became widely perceived as an ineffective, even downright incompetent Premier.
Clark has been dogged by continuing fallout from the BC Rail scandal, due to her cabinet position at the time and her family connections to people commonly mentioned in the investigations and search warrants at the time. She has suffered from allegations that she participated in the scandal by providing government information to a lobbyist (and Liberal strategist). Her brother was also the subject of one of the warrants, although no charges were laid against him.
Having won the Liberal leadership as the outsider against two incumbent cabinet ministers backed by the quasi-entirety of the Liberal caucus, she was never very popular with her caucus and she was constantly at risk of being toppled by a caucus revolt.
As it appeared that Christy Clark was a dead woman walking and the Liberals facing oblivion in the 2013 election, leadership rivals Kevin Falcon and George Abbott – respectively finance and education ministers in her cabinet – announced in the summer of 2012 that they would retire at the next election.
In March 2013, only a few months before the election, Christy Clark was nearly removed from office by a caucus revolt which followed an ‘ethnic vote’ scandal. Liberal strategy documents detailing the party’s attempts to woo visible minority (Chinese, South Asian) voters, notably by chasing down “historical wrongs” to apologize for (the Chinese head tax, for example), tailoring government policy to “resonate” with the target groups; and “developing a stable” of Liberal loyalists willing to write letters to the ethnic media to peddle the government line. The ‘ethnic vote’ scandal was widely criticized as being extremely insulting and patronizing to ethnic minorities.
Under Christy Clark, the BC Liberals have been slightly more centrist, while still continuing to be a coalition of federal Conservatives and some federal Liberals. Clark herself is a federal Liberal, but she has associated with several federal Conservatives and supporters of Stephen Harper. Former federal Tory MPs Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day publicly endorsed the BC Liberals.
The BC Liberal platform said a vote for them was “choosing a balanced budget, a growing economy, small government and low taxes”. The Liberals emphasized ‘controlling spending, balancing the budget and a debt-free BC’, notably through capping spending increases, a debt paydown plan but also a small increase in the tax rate for those earning over $100,000 and raising the corporate tax rate. In the latest budget, the government projected a surplus in 2013/2014, the first since 2008/2009.
One of the major issues in BC politics these days is natural resources, notably with the much debated plan to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to transport Alberta’s oil to the port of Kitimat in northern BC, where supertankers would transport the oil to Asian markets. First Nations communities and environmentalists strongly oppose the plan, but the federal government strongly supports it. Clark has been mixed on the issue, demanding an agreement on revenue sharing with Alberta. The Liberal platform supports oil pipelines on condition that they go through the full environmental review process, have a “world-leading” oil spill response plan, meets legal requirements regarding Aboriginal treaty rights (and that First Nations are provided with opportunities) and that BC receives a “fair share” of the economic benefits.
However, the Liberal government has been a very strong proponent of fracking for liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Liberals claim that promoting LNG will make the province debt-free and create thousands of jobs. The NDP and some experts think that it is all wishful thinking, contending that LNG won’t generate the estimated windfall and that the Liberals, as they have tended to do in the past, are hyping up the benefits of natural gas.
The BC NDP, in opposition since the 2001 election, were the favourites for the entire campaign and most of the run-up to the campaign itself. However, there was generally not a whole lot of popular enthusiasm for either the NDP or its leader, Adrian Dix. Dix became party leader in 2011 after Carole James, the NDP leader since 2003 who had led the party in the 2005 and 2009 elections, was pushed out of the position by a caucus revolt in late 2010/early 2011. Adrian Dix, Glen Clark’s former Chief of Staff and MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway since 2005, defeated three other candidates for the BC NDP leadership. He was considered as being the most left-wing candidate in the field.
In his leadership bid, Dix supported eliminating the HST, rolling back reductions in the corporate tax rate, supporting the redirection of carbon tax revenue to pay for public transit, increasing the minimum wage to $10 (which has since been done by the Liberal government), creating a provincial child care system, restoring grants to the post-secondary students, reducing interest on student loans and restoring the corporation capital tax on financial institutions.
The BC NDP’s platform focused on the notion of “change for the better”. It emphasized, besides obligatory job creation, reducing child poverty and inequalities, improving care for seniors and fighting climate change. It promised a $210 million BC Family Bonus to help over 300k low and medium-income families with children and to increase welfare payments (an increase of $20 a month). Claiming that the Liberals have rolled back basic employment rights, the NDP promised to “strengthen and enforce employment standards” – notably by indexing the minimum wage to inflation. The NDP also supported lowering tuition fees, while the Liberal government only promised to limit tuition fees increase to a maximum of 2%.
The BC NDP opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline, as well as Kinder-Morgan’s plan to twin its existing Edmonton-Burnaby Trans Mountain pipeline. It supported a ‘made-in-BC’ environmental review process, a strategy for sustainable energy and more action on climate change.
The NDP remains a polarizing party, which has a strong base of support but also a motivated opposition. The BC NDP has struggled to fully dissociate itself from the NDP governments in the 1990s and the corruption scandals (Fast Ferry and Casinogate) from that era, and it also has always received a bad rap as being in cahoots with labour unions. The Liberals constantly criticize the NDP for being unable to “stand up” to its “friends” in labour, and its “reckless spending” policies.
In an attempt to appeal to middle-ground swing voters, Adrian Dix tried to lead a campaign which was widely described as “boring” and vaguely centrist. He refused to go negative on the Liberals and ran a ‘positive campaign’, which critics claim didn’t do a good job of holding the Liberals to account for their record and failures in office.
The Greens have been a strong third party in BC politics since they won 12% in the 2001 election, although their support has fallen off since that high (returning to more ‘normal’ levels after the 2001 aberration). However, the Greens have never won a seat in the legislature.
Unlike, say, the Ontario Greens, the BC Greens are a left-wing party, leading many Dippers say that they don’t serve much of a purpose because of their ideological proximity to the NDP. While it is true that the Greens and NDP are rather similar ideologically, and most Green voters would probably prefer an NDP government in Victoria to a Liberal government, there are some differences. The Greens tend to place more emphasis on green issues, notably a ‘sustainable economy. The Greens support a balanced budget, achieved by “ending corporate welfare, eliminating subsidies to polluting industries and fair taxation policies”, while supporting tax credits or tax cuts for green business practices or green industries. Like the federal party, the Greens want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below their 1990 level by 2040. It should come as no surprise that the Greens strongly oppose Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan.
The Greens got some attention for unambiguously supporting decriminalization of marijuana.
While the Greens managed to run full slates in the last elections, they only ran 61 candidates (for 85 seats) this year. Like the federal Greens did in the 2011 federal election (with the success that we know of), the BC Greens seemingly decided to concentrate their rather sparse resources on a few ‘winnable’ ridings (most on Vancouver Island, around Victoria and Elizabeth May’s Saanich-Gulf Islands federal seat) while forgoing weaker regions (notably the Interior or northern BC). Green leader Jane Sterk stood against NDP MLA Carole James in Victoria-Beacon Hill, but the Greens focused a lot of their resources on Oak Bay-Gordon Head, a Liberal-held riding in suburban Victoria where their candidate was Andrew Weaver, a prominent climate modeler at UVic and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
The BC Conservatives have basically been either totally irrelevant or on life support since the 1952 election, despite short-lived revivals in the 1963 and 1972 elections. The Conservatives lost their last seat in the Legislative Assembly in the 1979 election, and while they have run the bare minimum of candidates in every election since then to maintain their registration, they polled less than 1% in every election between 1983 and 2009. Most federal Conservative voters are quite content with supporting the BC Liberals provincially, leaving the BC Conservatives with only a tiny base of supporters – mostly very right-wing voters in the BC Interior who haven’t liked the Liberals for things like the carbon tax, or, more recently, the HST.
The Conservatives managed to run 24 candidates in 2009, and took 2.1% province-wide. The Conservatives were left leaderless until May 2011, when former federal Tory MP John Cummins won the party’s leadership. With the HST furor, the HST’s debacle and the collapse of Christy Clark’s short-lived honeymoon, the BC Conservatives surged in polls – reaching heights of 20-23% and often lingering in the high teens. In early 2012, the BC Conservatives came threateningly close to the BC Liberals – either just behind or tied with them. As Christy Clark was seen as a dead woman walking, many started talking about a potential 1952/1991-like realignment of BC politics with the Conservatives potentially displacing the Liberals as the “free-market” and anti-NDP party. A Liberal MLA and former cabinet minister, John Van Dongen, joined the Conservatives in March 2012.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Cummins alienated several members of the party and the party was crippled by infighting and legal problems in mid-to-late 2012. John Van Dongen left the party to sit as an independent in September, other members left the party and the party’s polling plunged to the low 10s or even high single digits (benefiting the Liberals).
The BC Conservative platform – “we believe in BC” (I would love to see a campaign focusing on “we really don’t believe in [our country]”) – was vague, aimed mostly at appealing to conservative voters in the BC Interior – it lamented rural depopulation, immigration to urban areas and lashed out at the carbon tax (they’re the only party which supports abolishing it). The Conservative platform talked a lot about a balanced budget, and its platform included promises for lowering corporate and income taxes. But in general, a lot of its ‘plan’ was vague and focused on criticizing the Liberals and NDP for budget woes. Kyle Hutton from Blunt Objects (who did a great guest post for me on Labrador) talked about the Conservative platform here. He described it as terribly boring, with most of it consisting of blurbs which read like Wikipedia articles.
The Conservatives nominated 56 candidates. They lost a few candidates, notably in Boundary-Similkameen (where they won over 20% in 2009), because of moronic comments they made. John Cummins ran in Langley, a conservative suburban riding in the Lower Mainland with a strong Christian evangelical base. The party didn’t really recruit star candidates, except maybe one or two former federal Tory MPs (which most people wouldn’t actually know/remember, I’d wager).
The results – what on earth was that?
Turnout was 52.3%, down slightly from 52.5% in the 2009 election. This is, again, one of the lowest turnouts in BC history. The results were:
BC Liberals 44.37% (-1.45%) winning 49 seats (nc)
BC NDP 39.56% (-2.59%) winning 34 seats (-1)
Green Party 8.03% (-0.18%) winning 1 seat (+1)
BC Conservatives 4.76% (+2.66%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others and independents 3.28% (+1.56%) winning 1 seat (nc)
NB: Coquitlam-Maillardville is wrong, after a final count the NDP won the seat by 5 votes.
The BC election on May 14 was one of the most shocking upsets in recent Canadian political history (up there, of course, with Alberta’s 2012 election) – and perhaps even the whole world. The BC Liberals hadn’t led in any opinion poll for two years (since May 2011), and the BC NDP led in all polls during the campaign.
The last polls before the election had placed the BC NDP at 45%, with its lead generally ranging from 6% to 14%. The only poll which showed a close race, a Forum Research poll released on May 8, showed the BC NDP holding a two-point lead over the Liberals, 43% to 41%. The BC NDP’s lead over the Liberals had shrunk over the course of the campaign, coming out the gates holding a nearly 20 point lead (with the NDP nearing 50% and the Liberals lingering below 30%). During the course of the campaign, the BC Liberals had managed to move out of the high 20s into the 30s, but they never came within striking distance of first place in any poll besides Forum Research’s May 8 poll. On average, according to the final polls, the NDP was between 44% and 46%, while the BC Liberals were between 36% and 38%. The Greens, on average, at their 2009 levels (7-9%) although some polls had them higher (13-14%). The Conservatives, finally, saw their support in the final days range between 5 and 8%.
Based on these polls and the NDP’s consistent and comfortable lead therein, everybody predicted that the NDP would win a solid majority.
Instead, the Liberals won the election by 4.9% and won the same number of seats as in 2009. A major upset which, in many aspects, appears quite similar to the Albertan provincial election last year, in which the incumbent PCs won by 9% after the polls and everybody had predicted that the upstart Wildrose Party would win a solid victory. In both cases, the polls ended up dead wrong – nobody predicted the correct winner. That makes for a pretty bad record for Canadian pollsters in the past years. In the 2011 federal election, almost all of them failed to predict that the Conservatives would win a majority government rather than a minority. In Alberta, no pollster correctly predicted the outcome of the election and they all showed the Wildrose ahead (Forum Research, again, came closest, when they showed the Wildrose up only 2 points, rather than 5-10). In Quebec’s provincial election last September, while the pollsters were not wrong on the outcome (PQ victory) they basically all failed to foresee the incumbent Liberals, widely seen to be at risk of falling into third place, coming so close to eking out an upset victory. And now, in BC, no pollster correctly predicted the outcome. In general, the BC NDP was overestimated by 3.5 to 5.5%, while the Liberals were underestimated by about 7-8% on average (except Forum).
There are a number of factors and reasons which explain why the Liberals were able to pull of such a shocking upset, but few of those reasons explain why the pollsters failed so badly.
The BC Liberals ran the best campaign, and the the NDP ran a mediocre campaign at best. Adrian Dix’s decision to run a ‘positive’ campaign, refusing to engage in negative tactics against the Liberal government, made the NDP campaign a boring affair. Dix went out of his way to reassure swing voters that the BC NDP was a moderate, centre-left party which stood for the vague notion of “change for the better”; rather than something similar to the NDP of the 1990s, associated with corruption and mismanagement by a lot of BC voters. When he wasn’t doing that, he was running a policy wonk campaign which tried to explain the intricacies of his party’s long and detailed platform to voters. In the process, he managed to lose everybody’s attention.
In contrast, the Liberals successfully went on the offensive against the NDP, painting them either as “reckless spenders” who would throw the province into debts and deficits like in the 1990s or a party in cahoots with “big labour” and “environmental lobbies” who would oppose natural resource development (hence, opposing ‘job creation’). The Liberals doubled down on the province’s robust economy and the job opportunities which could be created by promoting resource development (first and foremost, LNG). They promised “strong leadership”, in opposition to Adrian Dix who became perceived as either too weak or an unknown quantity. Ironically, the NDP allowed their opponents to gain the edge on leadership when Dix, during the campaign, came out against the Kinder-Morgan expansion, after having held ambiguous positions on it beforehand. Many voters, especially in the Interior, extrapolated from this that the NDP would block resource development of any kind and would oppose ‘job creation’ if environmental groups opposed it.
Another factor which contributed to the BC Liberal victory was the low support for the BC Conservatives. They won 4.8%, which is the best result for the Conservative Party since the 1970s, but well below what even the final polls had predicted (6-8%). Some right-leaning voters likely hesitated between the Liberals and Conservatives until the last minute.
The BC NDP wins when the right is divided, and it loses when the right is united. In 1972, the PCs went from 0.1% to 12.7%, stealing a substantial amount from the SoCreds and allowing the NDP to win. In 1975, when the Conservative and Liberal vote collapsed, the NDP lost. In 1991, the anti-NDP vote was split between the Liberals (33.3%) and the SoCreds (24.1%), allowing the NDP to win – incidentally, the NDP did worse in 1991 than in 1986 (a two-party contest which they lost). In 1996, although the BC Liberals established themselves as the sole ‘free market’/anti-NDP alternative, the right-wing Reform Party won 9.3% and Gordon Wilson’s centrist PDA (5.7%) likely took some votes which would otherwise have gone to the Liberals. This year was no different. If the Conservatives had won over 10% of the vote, then the NDP would have won in a landslide. If they had done only a bit better, polling in the 7-9% range, the NDP would probably have managed to win a narrow majority. However, the Conservatives ended up being inconsequential.
The Liberals are lucky that the BC Conservatives had their 15 minutes of fame in 2011 rather than in 2013. They are also lucky that the Conservatives were unable to capitalize on their brief surge in 2011/early 2012. Instead of recruiting prominent candidates in every riding and developing a coherent set of policies which would appeal to BC Liberal voters, the Conservatives were caught up in leadership woes with a leader who alienated several members of the party; they also failed to recruit good candidates and they failed to put up a full slate, they mostly recruited the usual motley of cranks and nobodies.
Ipsos-Reid released an ‘exit poll’ which had correctly predicted the result on election day (see press release, or full doc with crosstabs), which gives some interesting insights into the reasons for the BC Liberal’s victory.
51% of voters decided during the course of the campaign, including 23% who decided on the day of (11%) or during the last week (12%). The Liberals won those voters who decided during the course of campaign: 9% of their voters decided to vote for them on election day, and overall 55% of their voters decided during the campaign. In contrast, 58% of the BC NDP’s voters had made up their mind before the campaign. The BC Liberals ran the best campaign, the one which convinced the most late-deciders.
The BC NDP’s campaign was all about “change”, but only 40% of voters said that “a desire for change” was a ‘very important’ factor in their vote. 41% of voters said it was not an important factor. NDP voters embraced the change message by a wide margin (74%) over other parties, but it did not translate amongst other voters.
Instead, voters said their top issues were an ‘open and honest government’ (71% rated as ‘very important’), the economy (65%), healthcare (60%), trust in a leader/party (58%), government spending (56%) and leadership (56%). The BC Liberals had a huge advantage among voters who rated the economy and government spending as ‘very important’ – a 24 point margin over the NDP on the economy, and a 20 point margin on government spending. During the campaign, Ipsos-Reid’s polls had found that the governing party only had a small edge on those issues (+7 and +2 respectively).
Premier Christy Clark had a 10 point margin over Adrian Dix on the ‘best Premier’ ratings, reversing Dix’s 13 point lead before the election.
The NDP won voters whose top issues were healthcare, trust or an ‘open and honest government’. However, on the issue of trust – which the BC NDP had tried to push during the campaign – the NDP only had a 5 point margin over the Liberals.
The exit poll also shows that the BC Liberals were smart to focus on the province’s current economy, because BC voters are optimistic about the province’s direction. 51% of all voters, and 84% of Liberal voters, said that BC was on the ‘right track’ against only 32% who thought the opposite. By playing on voters’ satisfaction with the state of their province’s economy, the Liberals found a successful vote-winner.
One extremely relevant point in this discussion, which also relates to the pollsters’ failure, is the composition of the electorate – particularly as it relates to age. Turnout was 52%, but low turnout does not explain why the polls sucked – turnout was the same in 2009, but the polls had that election correct.
Ipsos-Reid’s exit poll was weighted from turnout by age group in 2009. 49% of voters were aged 55 or over, 35% were between 35 and 54 and only 16% were between 18 and 24. In contrast, Ipsos-Reid’s final poll during the campaign had the oldest age group making up only 35% of voters, against 29% for the 18-24 crowd. Older voters tend to vote Liberal by a large margin – this year, the Liberals won voters 55+ by 9 points (48-39); the younger voters tend to vote NDP, this year they backed the NDP by 6 points (43-37). Furthermore, the BC Liberals also improved their standings with all age groups from the final Ipsos-Reid pre-election poll
The electorate which turned out to vote on May 14 was older, whiter and more small-c conservative than the actual electorate. For example, the exit poll’s sample had voted 50% Liberal and 32% NDP in the 2009 election (and 43% Conservative, 25% NDP and 20% Liberal in the 2011 federal election) – a considerably more conservative electorate than the actual 2009 or 2011 electorate.
BC NDP voters, particularly their oft-unreliable younger supporters, were likely complacent and felt so certain that the NDP would win that many did not bother voting. According to the exit poll, 48% of voters expected that the election would result in a NDP majority (75% of NDP voters thought their party would win a majority) and only 11% said that the BC Liberals would win a majority (only 23% of Liberal voters thought their party would win as they did). The ‘certainty’ of the BC NDP’s ‘victory’ demotivated NDP voters, but it also – and this could arguably be quite surprising (‘why vote for a lost cause?’) – motivated Liberal voters to turn out, perhaps in the hopes of saving a local MLA or ensuring that the Liberal defeat was not too severe.
One of the main explanations (but not the only one) for the pollsters’ failure is that they did not correctly predict the composition of the electorate. However, Ipsos-Reid’s poll show that there was some late shift with a significant part of the electorate which no pollster was able to pick up. The BC Liberals, as mentioned above, increased their support among all age groups compared to Ipsos-Reid’s last poll.
It is quite possible that polls were underestimating the Liberal vote, either because of a shy Liberal effect or the more widespread “unpopular governments underpolling” effect which comes up in all elections with a long-time and/or unpopular incumbent government facing reelection. But that can only be a small part of the explanation – unless the shy Liberal/unpopular government effect was huge, which is unlikely. The Liberals did not overperform their polling numbers by 1-3 points, but by a much larger amount.
The broad contours of BC’s provincial electoral geography remained largely the same. The BC Liberals were strongest in the rural and conservative regions of the BC Interior and northern BC, the conservative suburban Fraser Valley, the affluent parts of the Greater Vancouver area, the heavily Chinese suburban city of Richmond and the affluent retirement-oriented communities on Vancouver Island or Okanagan (Kelowna and surroundings). The BC NDP were strongest in Vancouver’s deprived Downtown Eastside or the city’s more trendy neighborhoods, parts of the lower-middle or working-class suburbs of Greater Vancouver (Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam), the heavily South Asian (Punjabi) parts of Surrey, Victoria, most of Vancouver Island, the remote ‘left coast’ of mainland BC and parts of the Kootenays in the Interior (a mix of old unionized small working-class towns, hippie/countercultural areas around Nelson and a pacifist religious influence in the past from the Dhukobor).
The BC NDP performed relatively well in Vancouver (city proper), which is the only region in the province where they did better than in 2009. Most strikingly, NDP candidate David Eby defeated Premier Christy Clark in her Vancouver-Point Grey riding, with 47.3% against 43.7% for Clark. Vancouver-Point Grey had been former Premier Gordon Campbell’s riding between 1996 and his resignation in 2011, and Christy Clark (originally elected in the Port Moody/Coquitlam area) returned to the legislature as Premier following a by-election in Vancouver-Point Grey in May 2011. Campbell had won his seat by ten points over the NDP in 2009, but Clark had won the by-election by only 3.5% in May 2011 – an embarrassingly close result. Vancouver-Point Grey includes part of the federal riding of Vancouver-Quadra, which is held by the federal Liberals. Provincially, the BC NDP tends to be quite strong in the Kitsilano portion of the riding, a fairly trendy neighborhood. The very affluent West Point Grey portion of the riding is solid Liberal turf provincially.
The NDP also gained the riding of Vancouver-Fairview, defeating incumbent Liberal cabinet minister Margaret MacDiarmid. The riding is socially mixed area, combining NDP-leaning lower-income areas with solidly Liberal affluent neighborhoods (Shaughnessy). The Liberals, however, held Vancouver-Fraserview, a marginal riding in southeastern Vancouver with a mixed Chinese and South Asian population.
The Liberals resisted pretty strongly in Vancouver’s suburbs. The NDP gained Burnaby-Lougheed, meaning that the NDP now holds all but one seat in the Burnaby/New Westmister area, a largely middle-class suburban area. However, the NDP largely held what it already had in the area – it failed to pick up low hanging fruit like Burnaby North. The NDP has ultimately managed to hold Coquitlam-Maillardville, winning the seat by a mere five votes after the final count including absentees. The BC Liberals regained Port Moody-Coquitlam, which it had lost to the NDP in a 2012 by-election. In Vancouver’s affluent northern suburbs, the Liberals comfortably held all their seats (albeit with reduced margins), even the most marginal of them, North Vancouver-Lonsdale.
The Liberals held all three seats in the heavily Chinese suburb of Richmond, although the Conservatives did relatively well in two of three seats. In Delta, independent MLA Vicki Huntington, who had won the seat by a hair in 2009 against the unpopular Liberal Attorney General Wally Oppal was reelected by a much stronger margin, over 10 points. The Liberals picked up Delta North, one of the biggest swings of the election – the NDP had won the seat by 9 points in 2009.
The results in Delta North are similar to those in Surrey, a suburban area with a large South Asian population, which had one of the biggest swings against the NDP. The Liberals picked up, surprising everybody, Surrey-Fleetwood, a safe NDP seat which the NDP had won by 11 points in 2009. The Liberal vote share increased pretty significantly in the heavily South Asian NDP seats in central Surrey: +4% in Whalley, +11 in Green Timbers (the NDP vote fell by almost 15%!) and +12 in Newton. In the whiter affluent parts of Surrey, traditionally Liberal seats, the Liberal and NDP votes barely budged from 2009. These results (along with Delta North, which has a large South Asian population) indicates that the South Asian vote, which had been solidly Dipper in 2009, swung pretty significantly towards the Liberals. A fairly puzzling shift, especially taking into account the outrage surrounding the Liberals’ ‘ethnic vote’ blunder earlier this year.
The Liberals swept the Fraser Valley, a conservative suburban/exurban region with a strong Christian evangelical base (especially around Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack). The Liberals held their safe seats in Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack – notably defeating Conservative leader John Cummins in Langley, where he won only 11.8%. Conservative candidates in the other Fraser Valley ridings won about 8-9% on average. The Liberals picked up Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows from the NDP, and regained Chilliwack-Hope, a seat they lost to the NDP in a 2012 by-election (in good part because the Conservatives had won 25%, they won only 10.9% this year).
The BC Interior is a traditionally conservative region, politically influenced and driven by alienation to the dominant Lower Mainland/Greater Vancouver. However, the NDP has always had a fairly significant base of support in certain parts of the Interior – old unionized resource-based working-class towns (old mining communities, mill towns) or, more recently, hippie or countercultural settlements (oftentimes in the mountains, see the Slocan Valley). This year, there was a significant swing against the BC NDP in the Interior, and the Liberals did very well, especially taking into account Conservative competition.
The Liberals gained Fraser-Nicola from the NDP, taking the seat with a hefty 6% margin over the NDP incumbent. In Cariboo North, the Liberals defeated the NDP-turned-independent incumbent, largely due to a vote split between the ex-NDP incumbent (37.3%) and the NDP candidate (21.5%) which allowed the Liberals to sneak up the middle and win. The Liberals held all their vulnerable seats, such as Kamloops-North Thompson, Vernon-Monashee, Boundary-Similkameen and Penticton.
Theoretically, the BC Conservatives should have been at their strongest here (they were, in comparison to other regions) but even here they remained inconsequential in the broader scheme of things. Conservative candidates in the Kelowna/Vernon area in the Okanagan barely improved (if at all) on the Conservative results in 2009 (10-12%). In Boundary-Similkameen, their strongest result in 2009, they did not even run a candidate (their original candidate, Mischa Popoff was dropped when he turned out to be a crazy misogynist).
Overall, the Conservatives were nothing more than an inconsequential irrelevance this year. They did not split the vote and allow the BC NDP to win many seats from the Liberals, and they had only a limited impact – at best – in regions where they should poll well (Fraser Valley and the Interior). The Conservatives are stronger today than at any point since the 1970s, but they still have a lot of work to do before they become a force to be reckoned with. They need to win a strong leader, preferably somebody who is quite well known, but besides retired Reform and Tory MPs, it is hard to see who could fill that role. They need to develop policies which don’t read like a Wikipedia article, and which seek to appeal to a broader electorate than just angry right-wingers in the BC Interior. Finally, they need a strong organization which can actually vet candidates properly (something which they absolutely did not do this year) and run a full slate. These things are tough to do, and even if you do them, you’re not guaranteed success – ask the Greens. For the time being, the Conservatives will not be a realistic alternative on the right to the Liberals.
Nothing really changed in northern BC, except a small drop in the NDP vote from 2009. The Conservatives had their best result in Peace River South, where they placed second behind the Liberals with 27.3%.
In Vancouver Island, the main story was the success of the Green Party – throughout the island, the Greens took about 17% of the vote, most of that coming from the Greater Victoria area, where the Greens won about 27% and won their first ever seat in the BC legislature – Andrew Weaver, the climate scientist, won Oak Bay-Gordon Head with a 10 point margin over Liberal incumbent Ida Chong.
The BC Liberals held their two other seats on the island, Comox Valley and Parksville-Qualicum with little trouble. Both of these seats include affluent seafront communities, which are particularly attractive to retirees (notably Qualicum Beach). The Liberals came close to a win in the Cowichan Valley.
The Green Party performed extremely well in the whole Victoria and Gulf Islands region. In Oak Bay-Gordon Head, a well-educated and fairly affluent riding in suburban Victoria, Green candidate Andrew Weaver won 40.1% against 29.7% for Liberal incumbent Ida Chong and 28.3% for the NDP. Like federal Green leader Elizabeth May did in Saanich-Gulf Islands in the 2011 federal election, the BC Greens heavily targeted the riding and invested a lot of their resources into it. In the process, they managed to coalesce a broader coalition of voters which took votes away from both the Liberals and NDP (in roughly equal amounts). The Greens came close to winning a second seat in Saanich North and the Islands, a Liberal-held seat which ended up as a three-way race. The NDP won 33.2% against 33% for the Liberals and 31.9% for the Greens. The Liberals tend to perform well in Sidney and the mainland, a fairly affluent region home to a large senior population. The Gulf Islands, however, are a major artsy/hip/countercultural (Vietnam draft dodgers) hotspot and are solidly left-wing – in 2013, they likely split their votes between the Greens and the NDP.
The Greens also did well in other seats in the Victoria region: 33.7% for Green leader Jane Sterk in Victoria-Beacon Hill, 22.6% in Victoria-Swan Lake, 21.6% in Esquimalt-Royal Roads, 15.2% in Saanich South, 15.5% in Juan de Fuca and 18.8% in the Cowichan Valley. In all cases, the Greens seemingly took an equal amount of votes from the NDP and the Liberals, perhaps taking a bit more from the NDP in some ridings (in Victoria).
It is interesting to point out that the Greens’ strongest performances came in ridings which are part of the federal ridings of Saanich-Gulf Islands or Victoria at the federal level – the former is Elizabeth May’s stronghold, the latter had the federal Greens winning 34.3% and coming within 3 of gaining the seat (from the NDP) in a federal by-election in November 2012. Has the federal Greens’ strong infrastructure and organization efforts in those two federal ridings transferred over to the provincial level? It is quite likely, especially given that the provincial and federal Green parties tend to cooperate closely with one another.
Throughout the province, the Greens won 8%, which is down a bit on their 2009 results (which weren’t that great compared to 2001 or 2005). A lot of those 8% came from Vancouver Island and Victoria. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the Greens only ran 61 candidates, instead of a full slate like in 2005 and 2009. In some seats in the Kelowna region where the Greens had done quite well in 2009, they had no candidates this year. If we were to take only seats where the Greens ran candidates in both 2009 and 2013, the Greens likely performed slightly better this year than in 2009. There are, of course, a few exceptions – the Green vote dropped from 22.2% to 11% in West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, a riding which includes the Green-friendly ski resort of Whistler and the trendy Bowen Island. On the other hand, the Greens managed to win 20.8% in Nelson-Creston, a safe NDP seat in the Kootenays.
What a fascinating, surprising and eventful election. There are so many things to take out of the results.
Pollsters will have work to do, after totally missing the train with the Alberta and BC elections (and Quebec, to a lesser extent). Where their weightings flawed? Did they incorrectly model the election day electorate? Was there a last minute swing against the NDP and/or to the Liberals? Did expectations of an NDP victory depress NDP turnout and boost Liberal turnout? Did undecideds break heavily for the Liberals? Was it a shy Liberal effect, or the usual case of an unpopular government outperforming polling numbers? Is it a question of methodology (phone vs IVR vs online)? On that last point, while phone pollsters did ‘best’ in BC, online panels should not be dismissed out of hand. Some online pollsters like Angus-Reid have a good track record – they totally nailed some recent provincial elections.
Pollsters will need to answer these questions and adjust their work accordingly. The next election in Nova Scotia will see less polling than BC, meaning that the major pollsters will have until a 2014-2015 election in Ontario, an early election in Quebec or the 2015 federal election to fix their methods.
The BC NDP will be trying to find out what went wrong for them, how they managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. By the time the next BC election comes in 2017, the NDP will have been in opposition for 16 years. Their vote share has decreased in every election since 2005, and they have basically held the same number of seats since then.
Adrian Dix is staying on for now, but I have little doubt that he won’t lost for very long – he certainly won’t live to fight another election as NDP leader, after this disastrous election. This election loss isn’t entirely his fault, but he is definitely responsible for a good part of what happened. He led a boring and uninspiring campaign running on a vague and empty promise of “change for the better” which did not motivate anybody besides NDP voters.
Surprisingly, Christy Clark, who had been – at best – out of her depth as Premier since 2010 (only a few months ago, she had approval ratings in the mid 20s and disapprovals well over 60), turned out to be a strong and effective campaigner who put the NDP on the defensive (when it should have been on the offensive against a longtime unpopular government). Voters began to appreciate her in comparison to her rivals and a lot ultimately preferred “the devil they knew” against what the Liberals had managed to paint as a risky alternative – reckless tax-and-spenders who opposed ‘job creation’ (without forgetting the NDP’s toxic record from 1991 to 2001). On the right, the substantial number of right-wingers who weren’t too hot on the Clark Liberals and who had flirted with the Conservatives in 2011-2012, ultimately decided to go with the devil they knew. John Cummins turned out to be irrelevant at best. As such, this election could be seen more as a rejection of the NDP (and Conservatives, I guess) and less as a mandate for the Liberals’ governing agenda. The exit poll showed that a majority of voters (58% if I remember correctly) felt that the BC Liberals did not deserve to be reelected.
This election proved that negative campaigning does work. “Staying positive” and taking the high road is admirable and it’s all really nice, but it has been shown time and time again that negative campaigning does work, even if voters insist that they don’t want it. The Liberals ran a negative campaign, targeting the NDP. It worked. The NDP and Dix took the high road, stayed positive and found themselves unable to counter the Liberals’ attacks. It didn’t work. It might be a sad reflection on our politics that negative rather than positive campaigning works, but that’s reality. In politics, reality is rarely pretty.
On the policy front finally, this election provides an unexpected boost for energy/natural resource companies. Business, particularly energy/natural resources companies with a stake in natural resource development in BC (Enbride and Kinder-Morgan) welcomed the BC Liberals’ reelection. An NDP victory would have meant a much tougher time for pipelines and natural resource development in the province. Business will find it much easier to deal with a Liberal government. Christy Clark is a strong proponent of LNG development, which the Liberals – rightly or wrongly – presented as the solution to the province’s debt and a magic job creator. She is a bit more resistant on pipelines, having set five immovable conditions (see the section on the BC Liberal platform), but she will certainly be much easier to convince (and work with?) than Adrian Dix. The very controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project, for example, cleared an hurdle here.
At the very least, the BC election showed us that elections can still be exciting – even when all seems set in stone. I hope this long post was well worth the long wait.
Next: I want to include something on the midterm elections in the Philippines held earlier in May, time permitting.
Kyle Hutton is an avid reader of World Elections, and a Liberal blogger from Ontario, who runs a partisan blog at Blunt Objects, as well as a blog looking at historical elections in Canada at Canadian Psephos. You can follow him on Twitter here.
A federal by-election was held in Labrador, Newfoundland and Labrador (also known as the “Big Land”) on May 13th, 2013, following the resignation of that riding’s Conservative MP Peter Penashue, who won the seat from the Liberals in a close race in 2011’s federal election.
Before we get into why the by-election was called, we must first understand some of the history and demographics that make up the Big Land.
Labrador is the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, taking up the eastern seaboard of the huge Labrador Peninsula, the large span of land that covers northern Quebec and Labrador, from the Hudson Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. It is sparsely populated, with no more than 30,000 permanent residents, and only two towns of significant size (Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City, both between 7,000-8,000 residents). Despite the small population, there is extensive industry in Labrador, ranging from large-scale iron-ore mining and hydro-electric projects in the west, to extensive logging and fisheries in the east. There is also a Canadian Forces air base located in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, though its importance to the military has declined significantly since its heyday in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when it served as a training base for several European air forces. Though 5-Wing Goose Bay and Search & Rescue services still use the base, Canadian Forces personnel there number under 100.
While Labrador is a mostly Anglophone and dominated by whites (who make up just over 62% of the population), there exists a large Aboriginal population that numbers around 38% according to the 2006 Census. Around 15% of Aboriginals lay claim to Inuit ancestry, while the rest are either Métis (15%) or undefined First Nations (7%). The Innu Nation is probably the largest and most well-known of the First Nations groups, representing many of the First Peoples communities in northern Quebec and Labrador (Nitassinan, or “Our Land”). Most of their members live in central Labrador, near Happy Valley-Goose Bay, though are spread throughout the district.
The Inuit of Labrador are somewhat split into two groups. The first live in the north of Labrador, in an area recognized by the Canadian and Newfoundland governments as an autonomous area known as “Nunatsiavut,” governed by their own council and somewhat similar to what Nunavut would have been like had it not become its own territory. The major settlement in Nunatsiavut is Nain, which numbers just under 2,000 people, though the claimed regions go as far south as Rigolet, which is at the mouth of Hamilton Inlet (that which feeds Lake Melville, the large basin in the middle of Labrador).
The second group of Inuit are actually a Métis group with heavy roots in Inuit culture, known as the NunatuKavummiut. Unlike their cousins in Nunatsiavut, however, their claimed territory of NunatuKavut, which takes up most of southeastern Labrador from Lake Melville to the coast, is unrecognized by either the federal or provincial government. Though they have a council and a President (led by former MP Todd Russell), they do not enjoy the same status as the northern Inuit. The largest town dominated by NunatuKavummiut is Cartwright, which has under 1,000 residents.
Labrador joined in Confederation in 1949 as a part of the province of Newfoundland, previous to which it had been a somewhat neglected northern district in a semi-independent British Dominion. Like the rest of the province, both the MHAs and MPs elected from Labrador for the first couple of decades after ‘49 were Liberals. This was mostly due to the phenomenon known as Joey Smallwood, who had led the province into Confederation and dominated its politics for years, though federal Liberals also heaped federal money on the region during their terms in power. Labrador was represented by Liberals continuously since 1949 to 2011, except for the brief stint of Ambrose Peddle between 1968-1972. In 1988, Labrador was molded into its own district despite being the least populated riding in Canada, which it remains to this day with only 27,000 residents, falling underneath the “distinct region” clause of Elections Canada’s redistribution rules.
Set amongst the background of the Liberal collapse, NDP rise, and Conservative majority built elsewhere in the country, Newfoundland and Labrador stuck out like something of a sore thumb on any map, returning four Liberal MPs from Central Newfoundland, two New Democrats from St. John’s, and of course, Peter Penashue in Labrador. Much of the reason for the lack of major Conservative momentum in the province was due to how damaged the Harper government had been damaged by former Premier Danny Williams’ – himself a Conservative – “Anything But Conservative” campaign, which encouraged voters in 2008’s federal election to reject the party for reneging on equalization payments to Newfoundland. The Conservatives, previously the main challengers to the Liberals in the province, dropped like a stone to only 16% support province-wide. The effects were pretty clearly felt in Labrador, where the Conservatives dropped from just under 40% in 2006 to 8% in 2008. Todd Russell, the Liberal MP since 2005, won with a whopping 70% support, though mostly on the back of low turnout (38.6%, or just 7,787 voters).
Enter in Peter Penashue, the former Grand Chief of the Innu Nation for a dozen years between the 1990’s and early 2000’s, as well as holder of various other leadership roles. The recruitment of Penashue by the Conservatives was a major coup, representing a major voting bloc in the riding and having an extremely high profile even amongst non-Innu. He had a profile equal to that of Russell’s, plus the backing of a Conservative establishment really pining for a win in the province. As we’ll see in a minute, he may have had too much backing for Elections Canada’s liking.
On May 2nd, Penashue battled in a tight race for the riding with Russell, with it being called for the latter prematurely by some media until they saw they had a race on their hands. In the end, Penashue won with a mere 79 votes, or roughly 1.7%, over Russell. Much of his win came from voters in Lake Melville region (basically, Central Labrador), where much of the Innu population lives, as well as support from the northern Inuit communities. He won 88% in the two Innu-dominated polls, and his support in those polls provided him with his margin of victory. Russell’s support ballooned in NunatuKavut polls, but came in second (or third) everywhere else. Finally, the NDP dominated in Labrador West – basically around Labrador City and Wabush (iron ore mining is important in the area), the NDP’s traditional base of support both provincially and federally.
Penashue’s Resignation and Re-Candidacy
Peter Penashue was named Intergovernmental Affairs Minister in the majority cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s governing Conseratives, as well as being Newfoundland and Labrador’s representative in the government (by virtue of being the only Conservative from the province!). However, he ran into trouble following revelations that his 2011 campaign had taken nearly $28,000 in illegal campaign donations, usually in the form of free airplane trips (you need a plane to cover Labrador’s large and sparsely populated interior), as well as a $5,500 donation from a local construction company. This money was on top of roughly $44,000 that the Conservative Party had given Penashue’s campaign, as well as a loan from a local Innu business, run by his brother-in-law, interest-free, which is illegal under Canadian law.
Despite paying back Elections Canada for the illegal donations (and then some), as well as laying the blame at the feet of his rookie campaign manager in 2011, Penashue resigned from cabinet and his seat on March 14th. In a somewhat different twist, he also announced his candidacy for the by-election as a Conservative, hoping for redemption from Labrador’s electorate.
Penashue faced no opposition from the Conservative establishment in either Ottawa or Labrador, with Prime Minister Harper even calling the by-election rather quickly than in the past (for example, the last by-elections in Calgary Centre, Durham, and Victoria weren’t held until three months after the last resignation). The date was set for May 13th, a day before the previously-announced date of the general election in British Columbia, causing some speculation that Harper was hoping to drown out a possible loss in Labrador to the expected NDP victory on the other side of the country.
Penashue, despite the issues surrounding his candidacy, was a fairly obvious choice for the Conservatives. He remains the highest profile federal Conservative in the Big Land, if not in Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole. Even if the Conservatives wanted someone else, they would ne unable to match Penashue’s popularity.
The main challengers to Penashue were expected to be the Liberals, based mostly upon the race back in 2011. The New Democratic Party, while posting an impressive 19.8% and 2,120 votes in that election, were not seen as a threat unless they ran a star candidate, or the vote split in the riding in a big way. The Greens, for their part, decided not to run a candidate in order to avoid “splitting the progressive vote” (they managed 1.3% in 2011), while going so far as to ask the NDP not to run a candidate and give the Liberals a free pass. Suffice to say, the NDP rejected this proposal.
The race also came at an opportune time for the Liberals, who had recently concluded a leadership race just the month before. Papineau MP Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had won a resounding victory in that race (including over 90% support from Liberals in Labrador). Many in the media, rightly or wrongly, said the Labrador by-election would be Trudeau’s first big “test” as leader.
Todd Russell, the former MP and re-elected President of NunatuKavut, was originally expected to run but was pre-empted by the extremely popular Cartwright-L’Anse au Clair MHA Yvonne Jones, which apparently shut down Russell’s hypothetical run (he was none too happy about it, though he didn’t raise too much of a stink as the campaign went underway). Jones, whose provincial district covers southeastern Labrador and the majority of NunatuKavut, was formerly the leader of the provincial Liberals before stepping down to undergo successful treatment for breast cancer. She was quickly acclaimed as the candidate, resigned her seat in the House of Assembly, and started campaigning early. Labrador received visits from both Interim Leader Bob Rae, and then permanent leader Trudeau, as well as a slew of Liberal MPs and personalities. In other words, the Liberals really wanted this riding back, seeing it as the first big step towards rebuilding the party.
The NDP for their part had a contested nomination, with Harry Borlase, an analyst for an environmental research and development agency based out of St. John’s, coming out on top. Borlase was born and raised in Labrador, though some sources I’ve seen said that he lives in St. John’s (who knows). Either way, he was far from the big name that the NDP probably wanted to elect, which is odd considering they have a strong base in Labrador West, even winning those communities in 2011. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a high-profile visit to the riding – to Labrador West, specifically – in the early stages of the campaign. The provincial NDP also have big momentum, with the most recent poll placing them first in the province, ahead of the governing Conservatives. The extremely popular provincial NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, however, did not pay a visit to Labrador for this campaign.
The Libertarians also nominated Norman Andrews, a local blogger (though he barely posts) and advocate for Labrador power for Labradorians… I think. Not really sure what he was about.
Aside from the ethics issues with Penashue’s 2011 campaign and resignation, the big questions for Labrador these days surrounds the Lower Churchill hydro-electricity projection, a series of proposed generating stations being built along the Churchill River that will put an estimated 16.7 Terawatts into the system per year. The project is supported by the provincial government and being built by energy giants Nalcor and Emera, with investments worth billions of dollars in order to route that power across the Straight to Newfoundland itself (then to Nova Scotia), rather than through Québec which has had a bad habit of ripping off Newfoundland and Labrador in the past.
The big contention currently is Phase I, located at Muskrat Falls just outside of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is expected to be a huge job provider for the community (possibly totalling $1.9-billion in revenue), though at the same time there are concerns from residents of being “swamped” by the project, the thousands of new workers and mouths to feed, and the potential for the status-quo to be upset in their usually-calm community. There are also a whole slew of concerns about what effect Phase I will have on the environment, and protests from NunatuKavut members on the provincial government’s refusal to negotiate with them on the pace of, and revenues from, development. At one point near the start of the campaign, Todd Russell and other members protesting on the road to Muskrat Falls were arrested by the RCMP for disruption of the peace.
This all being said, all three major party candidates held similar positions in favour of Muskrat Falls, though drilling down on details such as getting more local workers or bringing in the NunatuKavut into talks, you see some slight discrepancies.
Issues also began to spring up in regards to Labrador’s representation in Ottawa. Penashue came out and basically said that without a federal Conservative representative like him, Labrador would be at the mercy of spending cuts – including for 5-Wing Goose Bay, Search & Rescue, and so on. At one point, Penashue came out and said that he had held up funding for some project in Newfoundland to get funding to complete the Trans-Labrador Highway, which is apparently gravel in some parts. Essentially, the question Penashue tried to build a campaign issue around was “who will get us the most pork?”
Finally, though not limited to Labrador alone, is the current unpopularity of the Conservative government. While not doing terribly in recent polls, the Conservatives have had to deal with several problems since the beginning of their majority term in 2011. The biggest to affect Labrador are the spending cuts by the government, which has resulted in the shutdown of Search & Rescue centres on the Atlantic Coast, vital to many Labradorian’s safety; as well as the government’s targeting of seasonal workers who use EI to supplement their income in the off-season, which affects thousands of residents. The phenomenon of Justin Trudeau may also have played a factor, as the new Liberal Leader has proven exceptionally popular according to polls – but as British Columbia showed us, maybe we need to take a grain of salt with polling these days.
Yvonne Jones (Liberal) 48.2% (+9.1%)
Peter Penashue (Conservative) 32.5% (-7.3%)
Harry Borlase (NDP) 18.8% (-1.0%)
Norman Andrews (Libertarian): 0.4%
Turnout was 59.5%, up over 6% from the 2011 federal election, and the best turnout since at least 2004, and the second-highest number of votes (about 12,000) since the riding was created in 1988.
Jones won with an easy 16-point margin, or nearly 2,000 votes over Penashue, with voters in Labrador turfing their cabinet minister in favour of a member of the third party. The turnout as well probably says more than the result does, as voters were clearly engaged in this race, and seemingly were more than happy to vote for the Liberals. While it is hard to say where the boost in turnout went to, it is interesting to note that Jones gained nearly 1,600 votes over Russell’s 2011 result, while Penashue only lost 334 votes.
It is hard to say where Penashue lost this race, though the entire reason for the by-election would certainly be enough for most voters. While Penashue did do the honourable thing in paying back the money to Elections Canada, as well as resigning in order to redeem himself, voters may not have bought his story and made him an example of what happens when you don’t keep an eye on your campaign expenses. Alternatively, it is possible that the unpopularity of the federal Conservatives could have made his campaign, no matter how good it was, dead-on-arrival.
However, the result is not as bad as some earlier polls suggested, including Penashue ending up third behind Borlase, so the Conservatives can rest easy knowing that they did not completely blow it.
For the NDP, the campaign result is, at best, “OK.” They lost some ground but gained about 100 new voters with their candidate Borlase, and likely maintained strong support in Labrador West, overall not doing terribly and not getting their vote squeezed into oblivion. However, failing to make a big impact in Labrador is an issue, given that of the five by-elections held since 2011, the NDP have fallen behind their previous totals in all but one (Durham). The Official Opposition, especially one the size of the NDP, should in theory be doing better than they have so far.
Finally, much can be said about Yvonne Jones’ campaign and personal popularity, and the fact that this is a traditionally Liberal riding. Though Penashue tried to take Jones down a notch with accusations that she held back from repaying expenses to the House of Assembly (something which Jones, who was on the board to review the rules surrounding expenses, adamantly denied), Jones did her best to keep the focus on Penashue and the Conservatives, on the ethics issues and on her previous record as a strong representative for Labrador in St. John’s. It is pretty clear that voters responded well to her campaign, and the spinsters in Justin Trudeau’s office are painting this as the first of many victories for the Liberals. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
General elections were held in Pakistan on May 11, 2013. 272 of the 342 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly (ایوان زیریں پاکستان) were up for reelection. These 272 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP in Pakistan’s four provinces, the Islamabad Capital Territory and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in Kashmir and northern Pakistan are basically ruled as Pakistani colonies and don’t get to vote – besides, large parts of it are occupied/ruled by India.
Only Muslim voters are allowed to vote, but non-Muslim voters (including Ahmedi Muslims) have 10 non-Muslim members allocated between the parties in proportion to the seats they already won. After the official results are declared, 60 seats reserved for women are allocated between the parties in proportion to the seats they already won. Candidates are allowed to stand in more than one constituency, but if they’re elected to more than one seat they must choose which seat they will represent within 60 days. Candidates who win their seats as independents have three days after results are announced to join a political party or remain as independents – oftentimes, ‘independents’ will end up joining whichever party won the election.
Pakistan, theoretically, is a federal parliamentary democracy. It has a bicameral legislature made up of the directly-elected National Assembly and the indirectly-elected Senate (سینیٹ). The Senate, with 104 seats, is made up of twenty-three members elected by each the four provincial assemblies (including 4 seats reserved for women in each province, 4 for technocrats and Ulama and one seat for religious minorities), eight seats chosen by the National Assembly for the FATA and four seats chosen by the National Assembly for the federal capital. Although both houses must agree on a bill for it to pass (except for money bills, which is controlled only by the lower house), if they disagree, both houses may sit together – meaning that, effectively, the National Assembly wins over the Senate.
The President is elected to serve a five-year term (renewable once) by an electoral college composed of all MNAs, senators and provincial legislators.
The powers of the President have shifted depending on the nature of the regime in place at the time. Theoretically, as mentioned above, Pakistan is a federal parliamentary democracy. In practice, Pakistani democracy – since the country’s creation – has been tested (to say the least) several times. In Malaysia, which is also defined as a federal parliamentary democracy, the system was subverted by a governing alliance in power since independence which has structured the system to its wants and needs. In Pakistan, the system has been subverted by military intervention into politics, in the form of several coups which overthrew democratically-elected governments. Therefore, Pakistani democracy came in four periods broken by military rule. The military ruled the country between 1958 and 1971, 1977 and 1988 and most recently between 1999 and 2008. Democracy – imperfect, unstable and often illiberal democracy – has prevailed in between those periods.
During periods of military rule, Pakistan effectively became a presidential regime in which the President (the military dictator) held strong powers. Similarly, Pakistani federalism – always of a fairly centralized variant – was undermined by military regimes. This was the case under the last military regime, led by General Pervez Musharraf. He amended the 1973 constitution (which created a parliamentary republic) in the form of the seventeenth amendment, which gave him reserve powers enabling him to dissolve the National Assembly at his discretion.
After the end of the Musharraf era and the restoration of democracy, the new government passed the eighteenth amendment which revoked these special powers. The President has returned to a more symbolic position, with the real powers being held by the Prime Minister, who is elected by the National Assembly rather than nominated by the President. The 18th amendment also devolved more powers to the provinces and revised the rules on the National Finance Commission Awards (fiscal transfers to the provinces, including equalization).
Pakistan’s four provinces also elected their provincial assemblies on May 11. Each province’s legislature, like the federal National Assembly, has directly-elected ‘general’ seats and seats set aside for women and non-Muslims. The sizes of these legislature range from a total of 371 seats (297 general seats) in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province (containing over half of the country’s population to itself) to only 65 seats (51 general seats) in Balochistan. Each province has a Chief Minister, elected by the provincial legislature.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, an exceptionally dangerous isolated mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, are ruled by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation. The area self-governs under traditional arrangements but there are a collection of agents from the Pakistani central government who oversee arrangements. The FATA elect MNAs and senators, which is rather silly because the Parliament cannot legislate for the FATA (unless the President consents). This arrangement has created a huge number of problems, notably in terms of human rights and security. Local elites – most significantly the Taliban – effectively make the rules on their own and govern their territories, with the only interference coming from the Pakistani (and American) military
Pakistan is one of those countries which everyone thinks they know a whole lot about, but in reality they don’t know much besides the stereotypes incessantly parroted by the media. I certainly don’t claim to know much about Pakistan, in fact much of this post is based on Who rules where‘s brilliant piece on these elections.
A particularly annoying tendency in the Western media is the necessity to assign an easily identifiable and coherent “Western ideology” to political parties, when a lot of those parties don’t actually have coherent ideologies and even when they do, their ideologies tend to be complex so that they can’t fit into our molds of “left-wing”, “liberal”, “conservative” or whatever. In Pakistan, the guiding ideology for most major parties tends to be corruption rather than any conventional ideology.
As described by Who rules where, Pakistani politics in rural areas is dominated by “big men” power brokers who control large vote banks which they basically sell to the highest bidder; parties get their votes in return public goods or money. They control these large vote banks through bribery, intimidation, violence or providing access to patronage. Traditional parties (PPP, PML-N and others) have found it hard, however, to operate with the same tactics in Pakistan’s growing urban areas. Again, as described by Who rules where, religious groups and ethnic parties (MQM, ANP) are the masters of operating in the urban context, because they know how to form networks, mobilize opinion and use the media. In good part, the traditional parties respect this – because the groups which master urban politics can’t win a national election. Therefore, the traditional parties reach informal local agreements with the ideological or religious groups. Religious parties tend to lend the mainstream parties informal support during elections, and in return they access patronage and the governments turns a blind eye to their illegal actions. Arguably, this explains the disproportionate influence religious parties have over policy and politics in Pakistan.
The governing party is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), an ostensibly centre-left secular and social democratic party founded in 1967. The party’s founder was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of the few Pakistani political leaders who actually had a coherent ideology. Bhutto led Pakistan between 1971 and 1977, first as President and later (after 1973) as Prime Minister under Pakistan’s current (but oft-amended) constitution. In office, Bhutto nationalized a large number of industries and all banks, enacted an agrarian reform, weakened the military leadership and initiated the country’s nuclear weapons program. But this agenda caused unrest and economic stagnation, and he was deposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in a military coup in 1977 and later executed by the new regime. Since then, the PPP has become the Bhutto’s family party. Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto took control of the party and the PPP won the first elections after Zia’s death in 1988 and Benazir became Prime Minister (until the President removed her from office in 1990). She returned three years later, winning the 1993 election and governing the country until 1997. Under Benazir Bhutto, the PPP largely quit being a centre-left party and became – like most parties – a corrupt nepotistic party, whose policies have usually been far removed from their founders’ policies. Although the PPP is more favourable to state intervention in the economy than its main rival (the PML-N), Benazir Bhutto’s governments started privatization programs. Benazir Bhutto fled into exile in 1998 as her political star faded (under Nawaz Sharif) and remained in exile until the end of Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.
As Musharraf made moves towards re-democratization of sorts in 2007, with the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which amnestied politicians accused of corruption (read: all of them, except those like Nawaz Sharif which Musharraf still didn’t like), Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan to lead the PPP into the 2008 elections. She was assassinated in December 2007. With her death, the PPP’s leadership passed to her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, but since he was only 20 at the time, the real leader became Bhutto’s widow, Asif Ali Zardari, who has the reputation of being extremely corrupt (he’s also very unpopular). The PPP easily won the 2008 election, and Youssouf Raza Gilani became Prime Minister. Asif Ali Zardari was elected President in September 2008 after Musharraf’s resignation.
By most evaluations, the PPP’s government since 2008 has been a failure. Of course, it must be one of the world’s worst jobs to be in charge of Pakistan, which often appears to be almost impossible to govern, in no small part because the civilian government certainly isn’t the only source of power in the country. Politicians and parties often contribute to the mess by being corrupt and, at times, being the cause of the political violence which has undermined Pakistan for decades (this is the case for the PPP’s two governing partners, the MQM and the ANP).
Since 2008, the security situation in Pakistan has probably worsened (certainly it hasn’t improved), and it remains one of the world’s top powderkegs and the Pakistani state often appears in the top spots for ‘failed state’ rankings (even if ‘failed state’ rankings are pretty dumb). The government has had bad relations with the influential and powerful military, currently led by Ashfaq Kiyani; and often difficult relations with the United States (given the American presence in Afghanistan and the war on terror crossover in the FATA and NW Pakistan, the American military is often considered as a major player in Pakistani internal politics). In November 2011, relations with the military hit a low with “Memogate”. After the American raid which killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, in an operation unbeknownst by the Pakistani military (though Zardari apparently knew), the Pakistani military was not in a good mood and thought to be mulling a coup. In a memo by the Pakistani embassy in Washington to the US government, Islamabad requested American support to prevent a military coup. Ambassador Husain Haqqani was recalled and replaced by somebody on better terms with the military, but in December 2011, Gilani gave a speech unusually critical of the military. Relations with the United States deteriorated after Osama bin Laden’s death and reached a low in November 2011 when NATO helicopters accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan demanded an apology and blocked the Khyber Pass (a NATO supply route), while the US blocked $1.1 billion in aid to the Pakistani military. Relations only improved in July 2012. Washington still harbours suspicions that Pakistan is, as America has always believed, playing a two-faced game and covertly backing certain terrorist groups – in September 2011, the then-Chairman of the Joints Chiefs Mike Mullen claimed that the ISI (Pakistan’s CIA) was supporting the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization.
The Pakistani government has supported the expansion of military actions against the Pakistani Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, but it has resisted American pressures to launch an offensive into North Waziristan.
Terrorist attacks across the country, notably in large cities like Karachi, have continued unabated since 2008. This election campaign was one of the most violent election campaigns on record, with a number of Taliban attacks targeting anti-Taliban secular parties.
The economy has fared no better. After strong economic growth (up to 8%) between 2004 and 2008, growth has slowed to only 3% since the global economic crisis. Additionally, with high inflation (11% in 2012), the country has entered another spiral of inflation. The government’s policies – an eclectic mix of privatizations and nationalizations with a preference towards state intervention – have failed to redress the situation. Agriculture is still dominated by feudalism, the industry suffers from mismanagement and incompetence from an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy.
Pakistan also faces an energy crisis, which has resulted in load shedding and severe blackouts. The state-owned electricity companies have been unable to cope with rising demand and are saddled with debt, given that a lot of their customers – notably the governments – don’t pay their bills.
The government was also widely criticized for its response – or perhaps lack thereof – to the huge floods in July 2010 which affected almost every region of the country, on the banks of the Indus River. The government underestimated the scale of the disaster and fumbled its response accordingly. President Zardari’s refusal to cut short a trip to Europe in August angered many Pakistanis. Observers feared that the Islamists would organize rescue efforts in the government’s stead (notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), boosting their legitimacy and popular support.
It doesn’t help matters that corruption drains away huge sums of money every year.
The last military government was brought down in large part because of the lawyers’ movement, a part-popular, part-judicial movement which rose up against Musharraf in December 2007 after Musharraf sacked Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had already been removed from office by Musharraf for a few months in March 2007, had suspended Musharraf’s NRO in October 2007. The anti-Musharraf parties (including the PPP) supported, opportunistically, the lawyers’ movement. Once in office, however, the PPP and Zardari were in no great rush to reinstate the sacked justices, given that Zardari and other corrupt politicians were benefiting from the NRO’s blanket amnesty. The opposition PML-N continued supporting the lawyers’ movement.
In March 2009, Gilani apparently convinced Zardari to reinstate the Chief Justice and the other sacked justices. In December 2009, the Supreme Court cancelled the NRO and directed Gilani to write a letter to the Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a case against Zardari. The Swiss case, which has been closed since 2008, concerns some illegal dealings Zardari would have had with a Swiss company in 1994. They tried various tactics to get Gilani to write the letter, but Gilani refused, arguing that the President benefited from immunity. The Swiss kept pointing out that the whole thing was fairly trite given that they had closed the case, but nobody ever really cared about the Swiss and the issue became about principle and politics.
In February 2012, the Supreme Court indicted Gilani of being in contempt of the court, and he was found guilty in April. He was sentenced to a symbolic 30 seconds in detention, in the court while the judges read his sentence. In June 2012, the Supreme Court disqualified Gilani from holding office and removed him from office.
The PPP replaced him with Raja Pervez Ashraf, the former water and energy minister. Their original candidate for the post turned up to be a drug dealer, but Raja Pervez Ashraf was hardly better – he is accused of having received bribes in the awarding of contracts when he was water and energy minister (and by all indications, he was probably a miserable failure in that job given Pakistan’s energy situation). The Supreme Court told Raja Pervez Ashraf to send a letter to the Swiss (again), and he refused (again). In January 2013, the government-courts conflict was aggravated when the Supreme Court ordered the Prime Minister’s arrest in the corruption case related to his time as energy minister. But the anti-corruption organism, the National Accountability Bureau, which is controlled by the PPP and used for the government’s political vendettas against rivals, was never very interested in the case. The Supreme Court kept insisting, in vain, that the Prime Minister be arrested. But he was never troubled and was able to finish his term in mid-March, the legal conclusion of the Parliament’s five-year term. At the same time as the Supreme Court was ordering the Prime Minister’s arrest, a large popular movement organized by religious cleric Tahir ul-Qadri rallied thousands of protesters who demanded the government’s resignation and snap elections.
The government has maintained that the Supreme Court’s actions are politically motivated, encouraged by the opposition PML-N. It has also said that the whole crisis boils down to the legitimacy of an elected government versus an unelected activist judiciary. The Court has said that it is doing its job as the guarantor of the rule of law, without any political motivations.
Despite a pretty terrible record, this government did manage the impossible: actually completing its constitutional term, without being overthrown or forced to resign. This is the first time that one directly elected government will be succeeded by another directly elected government. That’s basically where we are today.
The PPP’s official leader is now Bilawal Bhutto, the 24-year old son of Benazir and Zardari. But at only 24, he is too young to be Prime Minister of Pakistan (you have to be 25) and besides that he seems fairly uninterested by the whole politics thing. Fearing for his safety or just uninterested by the elections, the PPP’s “leader” spent most of the campaign in Dubai. The real top brass of the PPP in this campaign was formed by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and former Prime Minister Youssouf Raza Gilani, who really headed the PPP’s campaign despite his son having been kidnapped.
As explored above, there’s little left of the PPP’s erstwhile socialist secularism. They are probably a bit more interventionist and secular than the other major parties, but what differentiates them from the PML-N (their main rival) and the other parties is their support base. The PPP is a predominantly Sindhi party, with strong support in rural Sindh and strong links to the Sindhi landed elite. The Bhutto/Zardari family are part of Sindi Rajput (elite) clan. By being more Sindhi, and thus less Punjabi, the PPP tends to be more pro-decentralization and popular with non-Punjabi Pakistanis who decry the Punjabi domination of the country. This is the case for the Saraiki in southern Punjab, who speak a slightly different form of Punjabi. The PPP is proposing that Punjab be split in two and a Saraiki province established. The PPP also get votes from the country’s Shia minority, which means that the PPP tends be a bit more secular and not as big on political Islam.
The PPP’s traditional rival is the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz Group (PML-N), a more right-leaning party founded in 1988 and controlled by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N is one of several continuing factions of the Muslim League, a movement which finds its roots in Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s movement in favour of an independent Muslim state and the partition of British India in 1947. After independence and Jinnah’s death in 1948, the Muslim League became an unruly party which suffered from internal disagreements, the lack of a coherent program and a poor performance in government.
Nawaz Sharif is a self-made businessman from Lahore (Punjab, although his family is from Kashmir). Although he is one of the few politicians not to come from an historically influential family, his father and uncle became industrialists with Ittefaq Foundries, a large steel conglomerate. His family’s business was nationalized by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972 as part of the PPP government’s nationalization program. Seeking his ‘revenge’ on the Bhutto family, Nawaz Sharif – as well as other members of his family like his brother Shahbaz – entered politics. After Bhutto was overthrown by Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif became a supporter of Zia’s regime. Near the end of the Zia regime, the governing Muslim League (reincarnated) split between an opposition (anti-Zia) faction led by Zia’s former Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo and a pro-Zia faction organized by Sharif.
The PML-N lost the 1988 and 1993 elections to the PPP, but it won the 1990 and 1997 elections. Nawaz Sharif served as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1993 and again between 1997 and 1999. In office, Nawaz Sharif’s governments privatized a large number of state-owned companies, effectively taking his ‘revenge’ on the Bhutto family for the nationalization of his family’s steel business. In 1998, he gave the go-ahead for six test nuclear explosions. He also built the country’s first highway, and he continues to make a big deal out of that.
During his second term in office, Nawaz Sharif confronted the judiciary and, most importantly, the military. Shortly after the Kargil conflict in the Kashmir with India, Nawaz Sharif was overthrown in a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, who had ironically been appointed as chief of staff by Nawaz Sharif in 1998.
Escaping jail time in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was able to negotiate a long exile in Saudi Arabia instead. He finally returned to Pakistan in November 2007 to participate in the 2008 election. The PML-N originally allied with the PPP as part of a broad anti-Musharraf and pro-democracy front, and the PML-N entered government as a strong junior partner after the 2008 elections. But as the Musharraf regime faded out of sight, Pakistani politics reset to normal and the old rivalry between PPP and PML-N returned to the forefront. The PML-N quit the government in August 2008.
In opposition, Nawaz Sharif allied himself with the lawyers’ movement in 2009, launching a ‘long march’ to reinstate the sacked judges.
A lot of the old PPP/PML-N feud boils down to regionalism (Punjab vs Sindh) or family reasons (the Bhutto vs the Sharif clans), rather than deep-seated ideological differences. The PML-N tends to be more favourable to privatization, ‘free enterprise’, foreign investment and economic liberalization in general. It is also slightly more Islamist, but only very mildly so. The PML-N’s platform this year included economic reforms to boost economic growth, proposing measures including fiscal reform, reducing the debt/deficit, investing in infrastructures through public-private partnerships and reducing inflation. For all these niceties, Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N bigwigs are no less corrupt than the PPP – both parties compete in a race to determine who can steal the most money.
The PML-N is the party of Punjab, the powerhouse province of the country home to over half of the Pakistani population. More precisely, it tends to be the party of industrialized and extensively urbanized northern Punjab, drawing votes from industrialists, urban dwellers or the Punjabi feudal aristocracy and their voter banks. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz has been Chief Minister of the Punjab since 2008.
To make a long and complicated story (which I don’t know every part of), the other provinces of Pakistan resent the perceived Punjabi domination of the country. The PML-N’s support is, partly as a result of regional animosity towards Punjab, traditionally quasi-exclusively concentrated in Punjab. The PML-N appears practically non-existent in Sindh, and not particularly vibrant in either Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the old Northwest Frontier Province, NFWP).
Pakistani parties campaign using flags and, more amusingly, ballot paper symbols (so that illiterate voters can identify the parties). The PPP’s symbol is a fairly boring arrow, but the PML-N’s symbol – the tiger – has caused endless amounts of fun. PML-N supporters dress up in plush tigerskins, cover their cars with tigerstripes or stick a tiger (or an ugly object which doesn’t necessarily look like a tiger) on top of their cars.
The only thing which interested most foreign observers in this election was Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, PTI), a party led by former cricketer Imran Khan. Imran Khan was a very good cricketer, leading his country to victory at the 1992 Cricket World Cup. But his cricket career is long over (he retired in 1992) – he has been a political and philanthropist since at least 1996. After his cricket career, he became a bit of a playboy – moving to London and marrying a British woman (they divorced in 2004). In Pakistan, he opened the country’s only cancer hospital and set up some very good charity organizations.
At the same time, he’s been active in politics since 1996, when he founded the PTI. But prior to 2012-2013, Khan never had any semblance of popular support. In the 1997 and 2002 elections, the PTI won all of 0.8% of the vote and he was the party’s only candidate to win a seat in 2002. He boycotted the 2008 election, but nobody cared.
His ‘tsunami’ of popular support began with a rally in Lahore in October 2011, attended by more than 100,000 people. A bunch of polls also showed that the PTI was riding a wave of popular support, but polling in Pakistan is of dubious value. Given how his past political career was a joke, a lot of people were rather skeptical about the media’s fascination with Imran Khan. However, Imran Khan’s support turned out to be real. The media coverage of the PTI created a bandwagon and turned him into a media phenomenon picked up around the world.
Imran Khan and the PTI have been turned into what everybody would want them to be. According to various media reports and the like, they are secular and (moderately) Islamist, liberal and conservative, nationalist (anti-American) but also still acceptable to the West (probably because their anti-Americanism doesn’t involve blowing up Americans; kind of like Zia-ul-Haq in that sense). The word ‘communitarianism’ has come up to describe the PTI, though that word – like almost everything about the PTI – is so vague that it can mean anything.
Imran Khan rails against corruption, deeply ingrained in both the PPP and PML-N, and promises some kind of populistic citizens’ revolution to rid the country of the corrupt elites. His rather novel populist, anti-corruption, anti-establishment and mildly Islamist/nationalist rhetoric has attracted large crowds, particularly younger voters – especially in urban areas – who don’t have much in the way of family/patronage ties to the other parties. A lot of those voters have no great love for either the PPP or the PML-N (or the millions of other parties), which they view as corrupt and incompetent political dinosaurs.
Khan’s fairly nationalistic and anti-American message also struck a chord. In October 2012, he led a ‘caravan’ from Islamabad to Waziristan to protest against American drone strikes in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, American drone strikes are very, very unpopular in Pakistan. It’s not because Pakistanis love the Taliban – as some crass tabloids or rags in the West insist – but rather because a lot of those drone strikes end up killing a lot of civilians. A few days ago, a court in Peshawar ruled that drone strikes constituted an unacceptable violation of Pakistani sovereignty (akin to international war crimes) and that no Pakistani government may authorize such attacks. Imran Khan has taken a strong stance against drones (going as far as saying that he’d shoot them down apparently) and military actions in NW Pakistan and has instead promised that he would sit down for negotiations with the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan has still received tons of fairly positive and flattering reviews in the Western media. Mohammed Hanif (from BBC Urdu) in The Guardian encapsulated the whole media attention on him pretty well: “visiting foreign journalists have profiled Imran Khan more than they have profiled any living thing in this part of the world. If all the world’s magazine editors were allowed to vote for Imran Khan he would be the prime minister of half the English-speaking world.”
It hasn’t hurt that Khan has received the support from various technocrats (including the former PPP foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi), dissidents from other parties and local landlords. He is also suspected of having (or having had) the tacit backing of the army.
Late in the campaign, Imran Khan had his own Jennifer Lawrence moment, falling off a stage – although mockery aside, his fall was far more serious than Jennifer Lawrence’s tumble – he fell 5 metres from a forklift and ended up in hospital for a few days with two broken vertebrae.
The other parties at this point are less relevant. The Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) was basically founded by the military in 2002 to act as a pro-government and pro-Musharraf party in 2002. It won the most votes and seats in the 2002 election, but already by 2008 it placed only third with 54 seats. Like the PML-N, it is a conservative and predominantly Punjabi-based party; like the PML-N it is led by two industrialist brothers, the Chaudhry family of Gujrat. However, the PML-Q hates the PML-N, so it has allied with the PPP since 2008. As a party of power for somebody who has since lost power and who is politically irrelevant (Musharraf tried to return from exile with his own new party to run this year, but the courts banned him from politics), the PML-Q is basically dead at this point.
There are a ton of parties with PPP or PML in their name, born from various splits in the larger ‘mother’ parties. Generally, the PPPs tend to hate the PPP, the PMLs tend to hate the PML-N. The PML-F (the F stands for ‘functional’) is one of the most significant of these parties. The PML-F was founded in 1985 and it is associated with Pir Pagara, the leader of a Sufi Muslim community (the Hurs) – and former cricketer – who died in 2012.
The religious parties have been mentioned above in the passage about the nature of Pakistani party politics and religious competition. They do run candidates in elections, but they generally don’t win all that many seats – the 2002 election, in which the religious alliance (MMA) won 59 seats and formed government in the NFWP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) was an aberration rather than the norm. The MMA split ahead of the 2008 election and the component parties contest the elections on their own (or boycott them, for a few of them). The Islamist parties which ran in 2008 did really poorly, and collapsed entirely in the NFWP. In government, the MMA had turned out to be corrupt and incompetent.
The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is the oldest Islamist party, having been founded in 1941, and they have also tended to be the strongest of all parties – although this was not the case this year.
The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) or JUI (F) is a part of the Deobandi movement, a traditionalist and very conservative Sunni (Hanafi school) revivalist movement. The JUI seems to include a bunch of parties, the largest of which is the JUI (F), led by prominent cleric Fazal-ur-Rehman. Fazal-ur-Rehman was a close ally of Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s, and has remained on good terms with the PPP. After all, Benazir Bhutto’s government in the 1990s played a large role in installing and recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
The Awami National Party (ANP) are an ostensibly left-wing secular party, in practice they are a Pashtun/Pathan ethnic (ethnocentric?) party. The party is strongest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where they currently are the governing party in provincial government. The ANP also has a significant base in Karachi, which has a huge Pashtun population as a result of years of immigration to Pakistan’s largest cities. The party is viscerally anti-Taliban, and it has been the target of a large number suicide attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the ANP accepted some concessions to the Taliban in 2009 – it supported the deal signed between the government and the Taliban in 2009, which would have instituted Sharia law in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ party, but in reality there’s nothing liberal about them although they’re secular (if only by virtue of being hated by the Taliban). The MQM is a Karachi-based ethnic party representing the Muhajirs – the Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees who came from India after partition in 1947, with most of them settling in Karachi were they gained prominence in business and white-collar jobs. The party sees itself as an inclusive, centre-left, secular party – like the ANP – but in practice, the word ‘fascist’ or ‘traitors’ gets thrown around a lot when people talk about them, and there’s some justification for those terms. The MQM is the dominant party in Karachi, where the Muhajirs are the majority (along with Pashtun/Pathan immigrants); the pro-PPP Sindhis who inhabit the countryside are only a minority in Karachi, so the PPP is basically dead in the water in Karachi. The MQM, PPP and the ANP are engaged in a literal battle for control of the city, which has made Karachi the most violent city in Pakistan – more people die in Karachi than in American drone strikes. Politicians and their supporters are often killed in bloody street fights or gun battles with members of their rival political parties.
The MQM’s leader, who leads the party from self-imposed exile in London, is Altaf Hussain – a mafia kingpin. In practice, all parties active in Karachi, especially the MQM, are more mafias and paramilitary thuggish gangs than actual political parties. For example, the PPP’s only stronghold – Lyari town – is controlled by the Baloch brothers and their mafia.
In 2000-2005, the military regime created some nonpartisan local government structure which allowed the MQM to gain control of the Karachi local government (in 2005) and rule the city until 2010, when the new civilian government (which hated the military’s local government structure) effectively abolished local government for the time being. The MQM was up in arms at getting “its” city government taken away from them, which further worsened its relations with the PPP.
Although the MQM, PPP and ANP are engaged in a bloody battle for control of the city (which has turned to the MQM’s advantage), the MQM governed with the PPP at the federal level and provincially in Sindh until 2011. The MQM is basically willing to work with any party nationally.
Besides all of these parties, you have a bunch of other tiny parties which have a tiny local stronghold guaranteeing them a seat or two; or, in Balochistan, a whole slew of vaguely nationalistic Baloch parties.
Results and aftermath
Turnout is estimated at around 60%, up significantly since 2008 when turnout was only 44%.
The Election Commission has declared the results for 261 of the 272 general seats. There will be a re-poll in six constituencies, two results were withheld, two were ‘terminated’ and one election has been ‘postponed’. The 70 reserved seats have, as a result, not been allocated yet. The results are:
PML-N 124 seats
PPP 31 seats
PTI 27 seats
MQM 18 seats
JUI (F) 10 seats
PML-F 5 seats
PMAP 3 seats
JI 3 seats
Others 12 seats (incl. ANP, 1 seat)
Independents 28 seats
Nawaz Sharif swept back to power for a third term in office, 14 years after having been ousted from office by Musharraf’s military coup. Third time’s the charm?
With about 124 seats so far, the PML-N will have no trouble winning an absolute majority in the National Assembly all by itself. We can expect that a lot of the 30 or so independent members will quickly defect to the PML-N, who will also be able to count on the support of some of the smaller parties. Therefore, for the third time, Nawaz Sharif will return to office as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
What is to be expected from Nawaz Sharif in the next five years? He has already been in office (twice), although that was nearly 15 years ago and before a long stint in Saudi exile. His terms were perhaps not absolutely disastrous, but he didn’t prove to be particularly competent and certainly didn’t turn out to be any less corrupt than other Pakistani politicians. The PML-N (with Sharif’s brother) have ruled Punjab for the past five years, and the PML-N’s provincial government’s record is generally well regarded.
Nawaz Sharif wants to focus on the economy and economic growth, with vague promises of reforms or more investments in infrastructure projects. It remains to be seen how much it will be able to accomplish on that front, given that the PML-N’s campaign promised the moon on that front: building a high-speed bullet train from Peshawar to Karachi, expanding the highways or building airports. As Mohammed Hanif put it in the aforementioned article from The Guardian: “he has promised motorway connections and airports to towns so small that they still don’t have a proper bus station. Poor people, who couldn’t afford a bicycle at the time of the elections, like to be promised an airport. You never know when you might need it.” A lot of Punjabi voters like Nawaz Sharif because they see him as a competent businessman who knows how to get things done, and they keep hoping that his purported ‘business-style’ or entrepreneurial spirit will translate into growth and affluence.
The Pakistani economy has performed poorly under five years of PPP governance, with relatively low economic growth, inflation (stagflation) and a whole slew of other issues including an energy crisis resulting in load shedding and blackouts. The incoming government will have to live up to high expectations in that regard. It will probably have to strike a deal with the IMF for a new loan, which will entail reforms including more efficient tax collection.
Certainly one of the keys to more robust economic growth is the security situation in the country. Inefficient and bloated bureaucracy with archaic regulations work to discourage potential foreign investors, but the worsening security situation with a war on terror or urban violence (in Karachi) doesn’t attract tons of foreign investment.
Nawaz Sharif’s tone in the campaign was fairly nationalistic and defiant of the United States. He said that the conflict in Afghanistan, which will inevitably and invariably continue to spill over the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, is “America’s war” and doesn’t concern Pakistan. He has also opposed drone strikes. As The Guardian‘s article put it, “in his five years’ rule in Punjab, Sharif’s party has had one policy about the Pakistani Taliban who have been wreaking havoc in parts of Pakistan: please go and do your business elsewhere.” In large part, they have obliged and the Taliban undoubtedly prefer Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N to the defeated PPP-led government. For starters, the Taliban didn’t invite themselves into the PML-N’s campaign this year (read: they didn’t attack them).
Nawaz Sharif wants to negotiate with the Taliban, and there is a chance that those talks will be more fruitful than the previous round of negotiations with the PPP government back in 2009. But working through American-Pakistani relations, the war on terror, Pakistan’s role in the conflict and so forth is an extremely delicate issue. For all his words, it is very probable that realpolitik will prevail over Nawaz Sharif, compelling him to drop the anti-American rhetoric and build a working relationship with the Americans. After all, the last thing any Pakistani government wants is forfeiting the millions and millions in American aid to the military and the country. Like in the 1980s with Zia, Nawaz Sharif’s dream is probably to be Islamist at home while still getting paid by the Americans.
But the civilian government has only so much power over foreign policy. In reality, most of the power over foreign policy lies with the military, who are generally given a free hand over foreign relations and military matters by the civilian government of the day. Nawaz Sharif, back in the 1990s, tried to do things a bit differently, and that was a contributing factor in Musharraf’s 1999 coup. One of Nawaz Sharif’s challenges (among the million others) will be maneuvering with the military. General Ashfaq Kayani’s term at the head of the Pakistani military will end later this year, and Nawaz Sharif will need to appoint his successor. To smoothen things out and prevent a repeat of the 1998-1999 situation, he has already said that he will simply appoint the highest-ranking military official to the post rather than handpicking his own favourite (as he had done, ironically enough, when he picked Musharraf in 1998).
Nawaz Sharif will probably try to improve relations with India. He has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his inauguration, and he has given definite indications that he wants to improve relations and increase trade with Pakistan’s traditional rival/enemy.
The PML-N’s emphatic victory is not a nationwide landslide or mandate for Nawaz Sharif. His emphatic victory was an emphatic victory in Punjab, the PML-N’s stronghold and the country’s most populous province. The PML-N thoroughly swept the Punjab. The PPP, which had done well in the Saraiki-speaking areas of southern Punjab in 2008, were trounced throughout the region. They won only 2 NA seats in the province. The PML-Q was murdered, taking only two seats in the whole country – not a big surprise as the party died with Musharraf’s regime fading off into history. Nawaz Sharif’s party won 116 of its 124 seats in the Punjab. It won about half of the popular vote in the province. Regionalism remains very salient in Pakistani politics.
Imran Khan’s party, the PTI, actually did pretty well. It didn’t win the election and 30 or so seats is perhaps not all that much, but this is a party which had never won more than one seat in the past and had little existing partisan structure to build upon. They were not expected to win (despite what one might assume from the media’s infatuation with him), so it is a very good result. The PTI will be forming the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), which really seems to love whichever party is up-and-coming at the time (MMA, ANP and now PTI). It won 17 out of 35 NA seats in KPK, accounting for about three-fifths of its seats in the whole country. The party’s very strong performance in KPK and all the Pashtun populated areas was surprising, given that they had been expected to break through in urban Punjab (and take PML-N seats in the process) rather than in KPK. However, the PTI’s Punjabi breakthrough failed to materialize – it won only 8 National Assembly seats in the Punjab and didn’t really do all that well in Punjabi cities such as Lahore (Imran Khan, standing in multiple constituencies, was apparently defeated in Lahore). Its big wave of momentum instead came from Pashtun areas. Imran Khan himself is of Pashtun descent, which helps explain his success with those voters.
The PTI nevertheless established itself as the second party in Punjab, which definitely provides it with a base for growth in the future. However, the PTI is a new party with a charismatic leader but few political roots in the country and little infrastructure. It ran on vaguely populist promises, most of which would have been quite hard to fulfill if the PTI had won. Will the party be able to survive for the next five years? It is uncertain whether the PTI or the PPP will form the official opposition, but regardless the PML-N is absolutely dominant in Islamabad and Punjab and it has little need or use for the other parties. Will the PTI manage to hold together despite these challenges?
The incumbent PPP was trounced. That wasn’t surprising, since everybody (including the PPP) was expecting it. The governing party has been worn down and depleted by five years of power. Almost everybody agreed that they had done a really poor job in government, and their record (or lack thereof) left them very unpopular with many voters. It also didn’t help that because of Taliban attacks on them, the PPP wasn’t really in a position to carry out a real campaign (unlike the PML-N) and was forced to hide rather than actively campaign.
As mentioned above, regionalism remains very real in Pakistani politics. As an example, take the composition of the four provincial legislatures after the election:
- Punjab (293/297): PML-N 214 seats, independents 42 seats, PTI 19 seats, PML-Q 7 seats, PPP 6 seats, Islamists 1 seat, others 4 seats
- Sindh (123/130): PPP 65 seats, MQM 37 seats, PML-F 7 seats, independents 5 seats, PML-N 4 seats, PTI 1 seat, others 4 seats
- KPK (97/99): PTI 35 seats, independents 13 seats, JUI (F) 13 seats, PML-N 12 seats, JI 7 seats, ANP 4 seats, PPP 2 seats, others 11 seats
- Balochistan (50/51): PMAP 10 seats, PML-N 9 seats, Baloch nationalists 9 seats, independents 8 seats, JUI (F) 6 seats, PML-Q 5 seats, others 3 seats
The PML-N won a massive majority in the Punjab’s provincial legislature. In 2008, it had won 171 seats to the PPP’s 107 seats and the PML-Q’s 83 seats. Now it almost holds a three-fourths majority (and, if a few independents join the PML-N, it will have one). The PML-N has total and absolute domination of Punjab.
The PPP resisted fairly well in Sindh, where relatively little changed. The PPP swept rural Sindh besides the Pir’s strongholds which went to PML-F, while the MQM remains in control of Karachi. The PML-N did win seats (unlike in 2008), but it remains a non-entity. Similarly, the PTI failed to make a mark. Therefore, while the PPP was murdered everywhere outside of Sindh, it still managed a respectable performance in its Sindhi strongholds.
KPK saw the most change. The ANP, which had won 48 seats in 2008 and formed the provincial government since then, was wiped out – it won only 4 seats provincially and held on to a single constituency federally. The ANP suffered the brunt of the Taliban’s violence, and its record in office was probably relatively unpopular as well – unsurprising, given that governing KPK seems like a suicidal thing to do. It has been replaced by Imran Khan’s PTI, which won 35 seats in the provincial assembly and will be forming the next provincial government. The Islamist parties had their best results in the province, but they remain very weak compared to 2002. The PML-N has a bit of a foothold in the province, which it retained; the PPP, however, was wiped out.
Balochistan, for a change, was a hot mess. The PMAP (Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party), another Pashtun nationalist party, won the most seats but there’s basically a three-way tie for control of the provincial assembly. Turnout was very low in Baloch-populated areas, but much higher in the Pashtun-populated areas. There is an ongoing separatist conflict in Balochistan, which the media and the world generally keeps silent about or doesn’t really know much about. Many Baloch nationalists have been tortured, abducted or simply “disappeared” by the military.’
As The Guardian put it: “Who needs a federation when you can have so much more fun doing things your own way.”
So, to sum it up, Pakistan held an election and a former Prime Minister returned to power – but only because he managed to clean up in Punjab while remaining quite marginal (or nonexistent) in other parts of the country. The other provinces of the country traditionally resent Punjabi dominance of politics in Pakistan, and with the Punjabi industrialist and political elite back in power at the federal level, there is a chance that if his policies are too partial in favour of Punjab, regional resentment will increase. Furthermore, his rivals – PPP and PTI – have either held or conquered their own provincial strongholds, which they can use to defy the federal government. With the 18th amendment, Pakistan’s provincial governments are more powerful than they were in the past.
Can Pakistan change for the better in the next five years? Optimism is nice, but I can’t help but be quite cynical (and pessimistic) about the whole thing. I prefer to be pleasantly surprised. Nawaz Sharif isn’t some new politician who has fired up crowds with an ambitious or novel agenda. He’s an old-timer (whose two previous governments were aborted) and who is certainly quite corrupt. Even with the best intentions, Pakistan is a tough place to govern – the country is a powder keg Besides the thousands of problems facing any problem, the executive isn’t the only source of power in the country – it faces the military, an activist judiciary, empowered provincial governments, terrorist or religious fundamentalist groups, and many quasi-mafias running around freely in places in Karachi.
Next: BC (Canada) and the Philippines. Stay tuned – apologies for delays in publishing these posts!
Legislative elections were held in Bulgaria on May 12, 2013. The 240 members of Bulgaria’s unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (Народно събрание), are elected by closed-list PR (Hare-Niemeyer method) with a 4% threshold.
Bulgaria since 1990: anti-incumbency
Bulgarian politics since the fall of communism have been marked by anti-incumbency – no governing party has ever managed to win re-election. The right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), a broad collection of parties and politicians which had opposed the communist regime, won the 1991 election and formed government with Philip Dimitrov as Prime Minister, although Dimitrov was forced to resign within a year. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the renamed communist party, won the 1994 elections and Zhan Videnov became Prime Minister. Under Videnov, Bulgaria’s economy collapsed with hyperinflation (inflation reached 1000% in 1997), and the government faced huge protests which forced Videnov to resign in February 1997. The right-wing opposition won the 1997 elections in a landslide, taking 52% of the vote against 22% for the BSP. The new Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov, came in with shock therapy and large-scale privatization, which restored the country’s economic health and began accession negotiations with the EU. But as in most post-communist states in the 1990s, privatization was marred by corruption and quickly became a way for new oligarchs to enrich themselves and gain control of the country’s economy (and politics). Kostov’s rule was characterized by endemic corruption and mismanagement.
The SDS lost the 2001 election, but they lost it to a new vaguely centre-right liberal party, the National Movement – Simeon II (NDSV), the personal vehicle of former King Simeon II (the last king, who ruled between 1943 and 1946, before being deposed). In turn, Simeon’s party lost the 2005 election to the BSP, led by Sergei Stanishev. Stanishev was defeated by Boyko Borisov’s ‘Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria’ (GERB) party, a right-wing party created by Borisov – the mayor of Sofia between 2005 and 2009 – in 2006. The NDSV, in the meantime, died off – losing all of its 53 seats. The GERB won 39.7% against 17.7% for the BSP, and by virtue of the BSP’s short-lived change in the voting system from pure PR to parallel voting, the GERB almost won a majority to itself.
GERB leader Boyko Borisov, a flamboyant former wrestler, bodyguard and police chief keen on presenting himself as a populist (when he’s a fairly standard-fare right-winger, although a corrupt one at that), became Prime Minister. His government came to power as Bulgaria was hit by the economic crisis – the country’s economy shrank by 5.5% in 2009. His government responded with stringent austerity measures, which reduced Bulgaria’s budget deficit to 0.5% (one of the smallest in the EU) thanks to major spending cuts, but further aggravated the dire poverty faced by up to two in ten Bulgarians living under the national poverty line. The country is indeed one of the poorest in the EU (alongside Romania), with the lowest average wages (€357), the lowest minimum wage and the lowest HDI. The official unemployment rate has almost doubled since 2009, reaching 12% in 2012.
Borisov and the GERB’s anti-corruption rhetoric from 2009 turned out, in the least surprising thing ever, to be a gimmick. Bulgaria was already the most corrupt state in the EU (tied, again, with Romania) and the government’s anti-corruption ‘efforts’ have not improved the case. Before even taking office, the US Congressional Quarterly (CQ) accused Borisov of being directly linked to organized crime and major mobsters in Bulgaria; in 2011, leaked American diplomatic documents accused him of money laundering for criminal groups by way of his wife, who owns a large bank. More recently, in March 2013, an investigation revealed that interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (Borisov’s right-hand man) had ordered wiretapping. Political rivals, businessmen and journalists were spied on by the state. The head of the organism charged with fighting organized crime, who also happens to be Borisov’s former campaign manager, is suspected of having received a €20,000 in 1999 in return for alerting mobsters of police interventions and having turned a blind eye to drug trafficking channels in the country.
Borisov’s tenure has also been marked by a noted degradation of media freedom and transparency in the country. Since 2006, the country’s standing the Press Freedom Index has tumbled from 35th to 87th. The government usually benefits from rather tame media coverage, a number of subservient sycophants in some media outlets, the lack of investigative reporting and rampant self-censorship.
Faced with a crisis which worsened economic deprivation, and politicians who continue to be crooks, there has been widespread popular discontent with the government and politics in general. A protest movement, which originally protested exorbitant electricity prices (electricity distribution was privatized in 2005, and is now controlled by three companies holding regional monopolies, the whole sector is notoriously corrupt), began in January 2013. With rising electricity prices, it estimated that households will soon spend 100% of their monthly income on basic necessities. In the energy debate, Borisov’s flip-flops over the fate of the Belene nuclear power plant (construction began in the 1980s, then stalled on-and-off, then was about to begin in 2012 with a Russian company, then Borisov cancelled the plant) were quite unpopular. The opposition BSP, which strongly supports the Belene nuclear power plant, managed to organize a referendum on the matter earlier this year – a large majority voted in favour of Belene, but turnout was so low (20%) that the government was allowed to throw out the result (in fact, the government had set the turnout threshold over the 60% turnout in the 2009 general election).
During the protests, seven protesters set themselves on fire, and at least three have died. Clearly, Bulgarians have been worn down by corruption, mismanagement in both the public and private sector, inefficient and useless administration, high unemployment and poverty. The protests are not only about GERB’s tenure in office, they speak to ingrained corruption and mismanagement which has been the staple of every government – left or right – since the fall of communism. Parliament is often seen as a rubber stamp, in the pockets of oligarchs and businesses who secure laws favourable to themselves.
Borisov fretted that the protests would hinder his party’s chances in this year’s election. An opportunistic politician, he tried to rebuild his populist image (to save his party). He fired his finance minister (behind the austerity policies), revoked CEZ’s (a Czech energy distributor) license and proposed to reduce electricity prices by 8%. Then, in late February, overly dramatic, he announced that he would resign because he could not serve in a government “under which the police are beating people”. He also said that he was giving the power back to the people and that he did not want more blood to be spilled – to quote Joe Biden, a bunch of malarkey. He was replaced by a technocratic (but GERB-controlled) government led by Marin Raykov, a diplomat. Borisov’s resignation was in reality a strategic move to provoke early elections, salvage his party’s standing ahead of those elections and catch the opposition by surprise.
GERB campaigned on its record of reducing the deficit and emphasizing the need for fiscal responsibility.
The main opposition is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the only relevant party in a ‘Coalition for Bulgaria’ filled with useless tiny parties. The BSP still goes through the motions of being a social democratic/left-wing party, but in reality it is fairly moderate (left-wing critics would say it is right-wing). In power, the BSP – certainly no less corrupt or more competent than the right – continued with privatizations and even created a 10% flat tax. In opposition, they have been either rather silent or uninspiring. There has been infighting between BSP leader and former Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and former President Georgi Parvanov. As a result, the party’s prime ministerial candidate was Plamen Oresharski, the former finance minister in the BSP-led government between 2005 and 2009. The party’s platform was moderately left-leaning, promising to increase the minimum wage, create 250,000 jobs in 10 years (with a ‘reindustrialization’ plan) and greater state participation in the economy. It proposed to amend the flat tax – which Stanishev’s government put in place – by exempting those earning less than the minimum wage from the income tax and create a 20% tax bracket for those earning over 10 times the minimum wage. Like other opposition parties, it sought to harness the 2013 protest movement, with ‘anti-corruption’ promises.
The governing party countered by alleging that Stanishev bought his position of leader of the PES by awarding a contract for Bulgarian identity documents to Siemens (which has connections with Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the socialist group in the EP). This, however, appears to be a fairly dubious accusation.
The traditional third party is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party which excites everybody because it defines itself as a liberal party defending ethnic minorities. In reality, the DPS is an ethnic Turkish party (Turks make up 9% of Bulgaria’s population) which is certainly the most hated party in Bulgaria. Part of the reason stems from ethnic/religious tensions, but the DPS also has an unsavoury reputation as a corrupt party which has used dirty tricks such as vote buying or “electoral tourism” (allegations that ethnic Turks voted in Bulgaria at their permanent address and then returned to Turkey to vote with their passports). Only the BPS is amenable to governing in coalition with the DPS, which was the junior partner in coalitions between 2001 and 2009, first under Simeon II and later under Stanishev.
The DPS’s founder, Ahmed Dogan, led the party until January 2013. He became famous around the world when an assassination attempt against him at the DPS congress in January was captured in video. The whole incident was actually pretty amusing, especially with bodyguards and members starting to kick and beat the assailant. While most consider that Dogan remains the real boss behind the scenes, Lyutvi Mestan is the party’s new leader.
Attack (Ataka) is the main nationalist (far-right) party, with a magnificently bellicose name. The party, founded in 2005, is led by Volen Siderov, who gained some international notoriety in 2006 by qualifying for the presidential runoff election, with 21.5% in the first round and 24% in the runoff. In parliamentary elections, however, Ataka peaked at 9% support in 2009. The party, naturally, is strongly nationalistic – it is certainly the party which hates the DPS the most of all parties, it opposes EU and NATO membership and has close relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Siderov espouses anti-Masonic conspiracy theories and often claims that international forces (which usually involve Turkey, the EU, NATO, the United States and sometimes Gypsy ‘bandits’ and Jews) are planning a genocide of Bulgarians. The party, however, has tended to emphasize its anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and anti-neoliberal agenda, which makes it one of the more economically left-wing parties in Bulgaria – certainly moreso than the BSP. Ataka claims that the IMF and World Bank’s ‘neocolonial and neoliberal’ agenda marginalize and impoverish countries. The party’s platform supports a major increase in the minimum wage, replacing the flat tax with a progressive income tax and the nationalization of electricity distribution companies.
Ataka unofficially supported Borisov’s government after the 2009 election, but relations between the two parties quickly turned sour. The party’s support had dropped significantly by 2012 (1-3%), but it managed to regain support and improve its position because the protest movement. It has been one of the few parties to benefit from the protest movement, unlike the BSP.
The Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), the main right-wing party in the 1990s, and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), a right-wing party founded by Ivan Kostov in 2004, ran a common list (Blue Coalition) in 2009, taking 7% of the vote. The coalition was broken off this year. The SDS especially is a pale shadow of its former self, and the DSB has only limited support.
Order, Law and Justice (RZS), which won 4% and 10 seats in 2009, a personalist populist outfit led by eccentric anti-corruption activist Yane Yanev. The party zealously supported the GERB government.
Bulgaria for Citizens Movement is a new party founded and controlled by Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s first European Commissioner. It is a centrist liberal party, supporting balanced budgets, ‘financial stability’ and economic liberalization.
Bulgaria has 6.9 million registered voters, when the entire population of the country is less than 7.5 million. Bulgaria’s electoral rolls are notoriously terrible, filled with Bulgarians who have been living abroad for years or voters who have since died. The government never seems to be interested in cleaning up the rolls. Bulgarian elections are also marred by serious allegations of vote selling/buying (voters selling their votes, which is illegal) or employers coercing their employees into voting for a certain party which they favour (often because it’s their own or because they hope to gain money from having that party go somewhere).
The day before the election, the police seized 350,000 illegal ballots in a printing press in Kostinbrod. Coincidentally, the owner of the printing press was a GERB municipal councillor.
Turnout was 51.33%, down almost ten points since the 2009 election (60.2%). As in other European countries which have faced similar socioeconomic upheaval and growing disillusionment with the political system, one of the main winners of popular discontent has been abstention. The results were:
GERB 30.50% (-9.21%) winning 98 seats (-19)
BSP 26.61% (+8.91%) winning 86 seats (+4)
DPS 11.29% (-3.17%) winning 33 seats (-4)
Ataka 7.30% (-2.06%) winning 23 seats (+2)
National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria 3.71% (+3.71%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Bulgaria for Citizens 3.25% (+3.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
DSB 2.92% (-3.84%) winning 0 seats (-5)
IMRO 1.89% (+1.89%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Lider 1.73% (-1.53%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RZS 1.68% (-2.45%) winning 0 seats (-10)
NDSV 1.63% (-1.38%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SDS 1.38% (see DSB) winning 0 seats (-9)
People’s Voice 1.34% (+1.34%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others (below 1%) 4.77% (+3.17%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The governing party, for the first time in post-communist Bulgaria, won a plurality of the vote. However, the GERB lost a substantial amount of support – about a third of its vote – and it now falls well short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The opposition Socialists recovered a good chunk of the support they had lost in the last election, though I don’t know whether this means that they gained votes from other parties or if they just held their 2009 support in a context of low turnout.
Only two other parties entered Parliament this year, the DPS and Ataka. A bit less than 25% of voters voted for the plethora of parties which fell below the 4% threshold. Ataka, which had been written off only months ago, managed to claw its way back because of the protest movement and its left-wing economic positions, more in tune with some of the protester’s demands than the BSP’s moderate Third Wayish platform.
Nevertheless, these results still show that there is a major disconnect between Bulgarian voters and their political leaders. None of the four parties which entered Parliament are new forces or previously marginal forces which gained support as a result of the crisis. The GERB and BSP represent Bulgarian politics-as-usual: backroom deals, corruption, mismanagement and aloofness. The DSP is an ethnic party with an ethnically-defined electorate which will never be in a position to appeal to voters outside of its niche. Ataka saved its parliamentary caucus with the protests, but it does not seem like it will ever become a more serious or dangerous force. None of the other parties – Kuneva’s liberal party, the moribund (or long-dead parties which survive as ghosts) parties like the SDS/DSB/NDSV, the plethora of various personalist populist outfits or the new far-right (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) – a party associated with cable TV station SKAT (the one which had propelled Ataka to Parliament in 2005) – managed to actually appeal a great many voters.
The election yielded an inconclusive result. GERB is the largest party and should get first shot at forming government, but it seems extremely unlikely will be able to form a government with these numbers. The DPS and Ataka have ruled out working with GERB, even if GERB has gotten so desperate to remain in power that it backtracked on its past statements and is now open to working with DPS. A GERB-BSP grand coalition is unlikely. For starters, Bulgaria isn’t Austria or Germany. Secondly, the BSP led a very anti-GERB campaign which minced no words in talking about GERB’s corruption. It led the charge against Tsvetan Tsvetanov and alleged that the GERB had been preparing to rig the election when the 350k ballots were seized. Similarly, a GERB minority is unlikely to survive given the hostility of the three other parties.
The most likely government which could be formed on these numbers is a BSP-DSP-Ataka government (probably with Ataka and/or DPS providing outside support without being in cabinet), which is a bit hard to envision (given how Ataka and DPS are worlds apart). If the BSP is unable to form a government after GERB has failed to do likewise, the President will ask one of the smaller parties, and if this proves unsuccessful there must be new elections within two months. In the meantime, the technocratic (pro-GERB) government will stay in place as a caretaker cabinet.
At this point, one of the most likely outcomes is probably a new election. Whichever government results from this mess will find it hard to govern in the long-term.
One the biggest challenges facing any new government will be the legitimacy crisis and the growing divide between citizens and their politicians. Yet, given the political parties which remain in this new National Assembly, this seems to be a pipe dream.
Next: Pakistan, British Columbia (Canada) and the Philippines. Bear with me! Apologies if not all elections are covered, but guest posts are welcomed.
General elections were held in Malaysia on May 5, 2013. All 222 seats of the lower house of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rekyat (House of Representatives) were up for reelection. The lower house’s 222 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy which operates, in theory, on the basis of the Westminster System. The monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (often referred to as ‘King’), is elected to a five-year term by the Conference of Rulers, a council made up of the traditional Malay rulers of the nine (out of 13) Malaysian states with a monarch. This makes Malaysia one of the few elective monarchies in the world. In practice, the King’s powers are largely ceremonial: he appoints the Prime Minister, dissolves the lower house, grants royal assent to bills and nominates most members of the upper house (Dewan Negara) on the advice of the Prime Minister. As in other Westminster countries, true executive power is vested in the Prime Minister and his government.
The upper house of the Parliament, the Dewan Negara (Senate) is composed of 26 members elected by the state legislatures and 44 members appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister (including four representatives which represent the three federal territories, including Kuala Lumpur). The Dewan Negara has very limited powers. Although both houses of Parliament must pass a bill before it is presented to the monarch for royal assent, the Dewan Negara cannot veto a bill and may only delay passage of the bill (by up to a year). Similarly, the The monarch cannot veto legislation, he may only ask the Parliament to reconsider bills before granting royal assent.
Malaysia is a federation, albeit a very centralized one. It is divided into thirteen states, nine of which have a traditional Malay monarch. The eleven ‘mainland’ states only have exclusive powers over land tenure, the Islamic religion and local government. The states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo have additional powers, including special powers over immigration – Malaysian citizens from the mainland require a passport to enter these two states for a protracted period of time. Each state has a state legislative assembly, whose members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies, and a Chief Minister who serves as the head of the state executive. Twelve of the thirteen states (all except Sarawak, which voted in 2011) also held state elections on May 5.
Malaysia is, theoretically, a parliamentary democracy. In practice, Malaysian politics since independence (in 1957) have been dominated by a single alliance (itself heavily dominated by a single party); in turn, this ruling alliance has used the levers of power to control politics and set the rules of the game. The Electoral Commission is widely seen as being subservient to the governing alliance, which has used gerrymandering, vote fraud, phantom voters and intimidation to maintain its power over the years. The Prime Minister and his government are all-powerful, reducing the Parliament to an echo chamber which rubber stamps the government’s bills without asking too many questions.
Race, Identity and Ethnicity: The Core of Malaysian Politics and Society
The keys to understanding Malaysian politics and society are race, ethnicity and identity.
67% of the Malaysian population are officially referred to as Bumiputra, most of them ethnic Malays. According to Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution, Malays are Muslim, speak the Malay language and “conform to Malay culture”. The native indigenous population (‘tribes’) of Sabah and Sarawak on North Borneo are also treated as bumiputra for official purposes; however, the small Orang Asli indigenous population in Malaya are not treated as bumiputra and suffer from discrimination.
The bumiputra receive preferential treatment and have benefited from racially-based affirmative action programs. Article 153 of the constitution safeguards the “special position” of the bumiputras and establishes quotas for them in the federal public service, federal education scholarships, tertiary education enrollment and federal trade and business licenses.
About 25% of the population are Chinese, who came to Malaysia in three waves. The earliest Chinese immigrants settled in the Straits (Malacca) region in the 15th and 16th centuries, but most immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries as coolies. The second wave of immigration was encouraged by Malaya’s British colonial rulers, who used the Chinese to work in tin mines and rubber plantations. While most arrived poor, the Chinese population rapidly gained prominence in trade and business (banking, insurance) to the point that the Chinese formed Malaysia’s economic and business elite around the time of independence.
7% of the population is Indian. Indians have been living in Malaysia for hundreds of years, but the largest wave of immigration came alongside the second wave of Chinese immigration when Malaya became a profitable British possession. The Indians – most of them Tamil – were imported as indentured labourers to work on rubber plantations. Perhaps not to the extent of the Chinese, Indians in Malaysia are nonetheless fairly economically powerful in the county. They are particularly over-represented in healthcare (doctors etc).
Malay society had difficulty coping with Chinese immigrants, who they viewed as a threat to their majority status, their religion and the Malay language. British colonial rule generally protected Malays, recognizing the authority of traditional rulers (Sultans) over customary law and religion (although they were generally powerless against the British authorities), and their policies purportedly favoured the Malays (public education for Malays, limited preference in the civil service). These ostensibly ‘pro-Malay’ policies, however, only benefited to a small elite and they were used by the British to protect their power rather than favour the Malays.
Nevertheless, Malay nationalism became important in the early twentieth century, in part a response to the fears bred by Chinese and Indian immigration and the perceived threat they posed to the Malay people. In 1946, the British created the Malayan Union, transforming all of Malaya (peninsular modern Malaysia) into a protectorate which reduced the sovereignty of the traditional rulers. Furthermore, the new structure wished to extend citizenship (by way of jus soli) to all Malayans, including the Chinese and Indian. The creation of the Malayan Union boosted the cause of Malay nationalism.
In the years before independence, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a Malay nationalist party founded in 1946, had become the dominant political force in Malaya. The UMNO represented a conservative and elitist brand of Malay nationalism, primarily concerned with Malayan independence (unlike some on the left who supported a Greater Indonesia), protecting the traditional Malay rulers (Sultans), promoting and upholding Malay supremacy (Ketuanan Melayu). The UMNO had opposed Britain’s formation of the quasi-colonial Malayan Union in 1946, and the UMNO’s opposition pressured the British to dissolve this short-lived scheme in 1948 to create the Federation of Malaya, which restored the powers of the traditional rulers. The UMNO’s support had also been crucial to Britain during the most violent part of the Malayan Emergency (a predominantly Chinese Communist insurgency between 1948 and 1960). The Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957.
Independence involved a “contract” between the Malays and non-Malays. Citizenship, and by extension equality under the law, was extended to all residents regardless of race/ethnicity, and the constitution prohibited discrimination on racial grounds (except for Article 153). The Malay nationalists dropped the most problematic “Malay supremacist” aspects of Ketuanan Melayu. In return, non-Malays acquiesced to Article 153 and other elements which defined the new nation as an officially multi-racial but clearly Malay-led and dominated country (Malay as the official language, Islam as the official religion). Therefore, the non-Malays agreed to alleviate the inequalities in economic power between Malays and non-Malays (the latter controlled the bulk of the economy) and recognize the Malay nature of the new state in exchange for citizenship and equality.
The UMNO formed a parochial and sectarian coalition, the Alliance, with the Malaysian Chinese Alliance (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The MCA had been founded in 1949 by conservative Chinese linked to the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT); they strongly opposed the Communist Party which was predominantly Chinese in its ethnic makeup. The MIC was founded in 1946. The UMNO, MCA and MIC found common cause in opposing British rule and supporting independence. The MCA and MIC agreed to the aforementioned “contract” between Malays and non-Malays, which they and UMNO argued was the only way to ensure racial peace in the country. At the time of independence, most non-Malays accepted the constitutional compromise. Many felt that Article 153 would only be a temporary measure, as it had been originally envisioned by the British commission which drafted the text. Besides, the MCA and MIC felt that the “contract” was a fair trade-off – jus soli citizenship was seen as a major concession by the Malays.
The Alliance (UMNO in particular) was the dominant political force in the last elections before independence, and it came to dominate the politics of the new country after independence in 1957. One of the main opposition parties was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a Malay Islamist party. The PAS was founded in 1956, the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. Although UMNO has sometimes played up its Islamic credentials, the UMNO generally adheres to what it has called Islam Hadhari (‘civilizational Islam’) which is more moderate.
Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged with peninsular Malaya to create Malaysia in 1963. Article 153’s protection for ethnic Malays were included to cover Sabah and Sarawak natives (Kadazan-Dusun, Iban etc) even if many of them were animists or Christians rather than Muslims. The merger with Singapore, which was heavily Chinese, heightened tensions in the new federation. Malays feared that they were closer and closer to becoming a minority in ‘their’ country and felt that the merger with Singapore would further worsen their existing economic disadvantage vis-a-vis the Chinese. At the same time, Malay dominance was confirmed with an education reform in 1961 which decreed that only Malay and English would be the languages of instruction in secondary schools, and although communities could maintain Chinese and Tamil primary schools, all students needed to learn Malay and conform to a “Malayan curriculum”. The entry exam for the University of Malaya would be in Malay, even if most courses at the institution were in English.
Singapore’s Chief Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, became a vocal critic of Ketuanan Melayu and promoted an idea of “Malaysian Malaysia” which was anathema to most of the UMNO but which also opposed by the MCA. Lee’s vocal opposition to Malay supremacy heightened and radicalized racial tensions and quickly led to a break in relations between the UMNO and Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP). The non-aggression pact between the two parties was broken when the UMNO ran in the 1963 elections in Singapore and when the PAP ran candidates on the mainland in the 1964 Malaysian election. In both cases, the UMNO and PAP’s attempts to encroach on the other side’s turf ended as massive failures, but the break led to a major deterioration in the situation. Eventually, Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.
In the 1969 elections, the Alliance – particularly the MCA – suffered heavily loses, winning only 45% of the vote although they retained their parliamentary supremacy. The PAS and two new predominantly Chinese parties – the liberal Gerakan and the left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP, the Malaysian branch of the Singaporean PAP) – made major gains. A Gerakan-DAP victory rally turned rowdy as the Chinese crowds taunted Malay bystanders and hurled racial epithets at them. The next day, angry Malay crowds burned over 6000 Chinese homes and businesses and killed 184 people. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended the newly-elected Parliament, leading to direct rule by the executive branch. At the same time, UMNO hardliners (ultras) who had a more racially exclusive and radical view of Malay supremacy, clamored for Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation – they viewed the ‘father of independence’ as being too soft on non-Malays. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had been in office since independence, resigned in late 1970 in favour of Tun Abdul Razak, who welcomed the UMNO ultras – such as future Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – back into the party.
The government, ruling with emergency powers, stepped up repressive measures. It strengthened the old Internal Security Act (ISA), which gave the state broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being a threat to national security for up to 60 days and gave the minister authority to detain individuals for up to two years without trial. It amended the Sedition Act, which bans and criminalizes “seditious” discourse. The Sedition Act also bans any public discourse which questions Article 153 and other “matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative” established by the constitution. The Sedition Act acts as a ‘gag law’ which prevents MPs from debating Article 153.
Tun Abdul Razak’s premiership was defined by the New Economic Policy (NEP), a racially-based affirmative action program aimed at correcting the socioeconomic disparity between the Chinese and Malays. In 1971, the bumiputra controlled only 2.4% of the economy, the NEP set a 30% target. The NEP went beyond Article 153, expanding preferential policies to the entire economy. Malays are entitled to a 7% discount on propert, regardless of their income (lower-income non-Malays receive no such discounts). There were quotas for bumiputra students in post-secondary institutions until 2002. Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange must have 30% Malay ownership; a number of profitable government-run mutual funds are available to bumiputra buyers only; most government tenders require that companies submitting tenders be bumiputra owned; and bumiputra have preferential access to imported cars. Unlike Article 153, the NEP represented direct state intervention into the economy to promote and enhance Malay privilege.
Parliament reconvened in 1971, and the Alliance was reformed as the Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) in 1973. The BN was an expanded coalition which included the liberal Chinese Gerakan and the Islamist Malay PAS, although PAS left the coalition in 1978. Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak died in 1976 and was succeeded by Hussein Onn. Hussein Onn resigned due to ill health in 1981, and he was succeeded by his Deputy Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, a prominent ‘ultra’ within UMNO.
Mahathir’s long premiership marked the cementing of Malay-UMNO hegemony and an autocratic, corrupt and centralist regime. Mahathir inherited the NEP and continued affirmative action policies. Economically, the country experienced solid economic growth in the 1980s (except 1985-1986), in part thanks to the government’s policies. It sought to protect Malaysian industry, like a nascent auto industry, through protective tariffs. At the same time, it privatized a number of state-owned companies at home – these privatizations were often murky and enriched government supporters.
Mahathir faced challenges to his leadership and to Malay hegemony in 1987. Within UMNO, Mahathir had made enemies and he was challenged by an old rival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, for the party’s leadership in 1987. Ultimately, Mahathir’s faction – styled ‘Team A’ – prevailed over Razaleigh by a hair, but the party split into two factions. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Razaleigh’s appeal of a lower court’s decision (which, by declaring UMNO an illegal organization due to some branches not being formally registered, allowed Mahathir to create a new UMNO which the old UMNO’s assets with it), the government proceeded to sack the chief justice and other judges and removed the court’s power to conduct judicial review. In the 1990 election, Razaleigh’s dissident party – supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn – did not pose a serious threat to the BN-UMNO’s power, it won only 15% and 8 seats
At the same time, the government’s decision to appoint non-Chinese speakers to administer Chinese schools provoked an outcry from the Chinese community – including the MCA and Gerakan (UMNO’s two coalition allies). Inflammatory rhetoric swelled on both sides, with UMNO radicals threatening violence and bloodshed. The government responded heavy-handedly, invoking the ISA to arrest opposition leaders.
The NEP expired in 1990. The NEP had fallen short of its 30% target, but Malay control of the country’s economy increased substantially from 2% in 197o to 20% in 1990. Supporters of the NEP credit it with correcting socioeconomic disparities, reducing poverty and increasing the wealth of Malays without negatively affecting Chinese and Indian Malaysians. However, the NEP and subsequent forms of affirmative actions have been widely criticized for having reduced non-Malays to ‘second class citizens’. Furthermore, while the NEP created a new class of Malay businessmen and millionaires, it was in good part due to cronyism. Economic benefits, critics charged, accrued only to the politically connected and widened the gap between rich and poor Malays. The government continued most of the NEP’s policies with the National Development Policy (NDP).
Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth in the late 80s and early 90s (9-10% GDP growth), which continued until the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Most of the credit for the economic growth in the 90s went to Anwar Ibrahim, a former Islamic student leader who had risen to become finance minister (in 1991) and Deputy Prime Minister (in 1993). With Anwar, the government cut corporate taxes and liberalized laws to attract foreign investment. The early 90s were also a period of political liberalization and detente in tense racial relations. The government toned down the old Ketuanan Melayu rhetoric and spoke of reconciliation and common destinies in a multi-racial country.
When the Asian financial crisis hit the country in 1997, Anwar supported the IMF’s austerity policies (spending cuts, raising interest rates). Feeling that Anwar’s policies had exacerbated the crisis, Mahathir sacked Anwar and dropped the IMF’s policies. Anwar was ambitious and started posing a threat to Mahathir’s control of UMNO. Indeed, Anwar and his supporters had started speaking out to denounce (widespread) corruption and cronyism in the ruling party. Anwar was arrested and detained under the ISA in September 1998. In April 1999, he was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption. Two months later, he was charged with sodomy and sentenced to nine years in jail. The two sentences would be served consecutively.
In 1999, an opposition coalition (Barisan Alternatif) formed by the DAP, the PAS and a new party led by Anwar’s wife won 40% of the vote against 56.5% for the BN.
Mahathir stepped down in 2003, handing over power to his anointed successor and Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi. On an appealing anti-corruption platform, the new Prime Minister won a landslide over a divided opposition in the 2004 election, winning 90% of the seats in the lower house.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was released from prison in 2004, after the sodomy verdict was partially overturned. Anwar was still banned from participating in politics for another five years, since Malaysian law bans political activity for a period of five years after the end of a sentence.
Affirmative action policies in education were replaced by “Malaysian meritocracy” in 2003. While the government argued that its new policy gave every Malaysian, regardless of race, equal access to post-secondary education, critics argued that the new ‘meritocracy’ was sham because admission to university is based on two parallel examination systems (a one-year course or a two-year course), which in practice favours bumiputra students who are disproportionately enrolled in the easier one-year program (matriculation). Continuing the trend started under Mahathir in the 1990s, the government’s rhetoric generally became more multi-racial, emphasizing Malaysian “nationhood” rather than purely Malay culture has it had in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abdullah Badawi was a fairly ineffective Prime Minister, and he faced heavy criticism from his predecessor, who remained active in the background. The opposition made historic gains in the 2008 election, winning 82 seats in the 222-seat lower house. For the first time, the BN lost its two-thirds majority which had allowed it to change the constitution. Anwar Ibrahim was still ineligible when the 2008 election was held, in March, but he returned to Parliament in August 2008 after easily winning a by-election in his old constituency, held by his wife. Anwar faced new sodomy allegations in June 2008, but the court finally found him not guilty in January 2012. Like in the first sodomy trial in 1999, Anwar has maintained his innocence and denounced the charges as being politically motivated. The international community, which holds Anwar in high regard, has been critical of the government’s alleged intervention in the trials.
Abdullah Badawi, pressured by Mahathir and other UMNO leaders, was forced out of office in April 2009 and replaced by Najib Razak, his Deputy Prime Minister who had held various portfolios since the 1990s.
Najib Razak has styled himself as a modern, progressive reformer who has sought to downplay old ethnic tensions, liberalize the economy and loosen some of the old restrictive laws.
Najib introduced wide-reaching economic reforms, aimed at attracting more foreign investment and modernizing the economy. The old minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies was lowered from 30% to 12.5%, while additional reforms loosened rules on foreign investment (allowing foreign investors to hold majority stakes in most enterprises). Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a high-income economy by 2020, seeks to boost private enterprise. The government has also implemented wide-reaching reforms to the country’s government subsidies program, either cutting subsidies or eliminating them entirely as was the case for petrol, diesel and sugar subsidies. Malaysia’s economy is growing by around 5% per year.
Najib’s government has pushed forward a fairly ambitious agenda of political transformation, aimed at dismantling repressive security laws which had allowed the BN/UMNO to maintain its hegemony in the past. In 2012, the government repealed the ISA, which had given previous governments wide powers to detain their opponents on flimsy political grounds. It has been replaced by a law which still allows detention for preventive reasons, but for a shorter period of time and on stricter grounds (subject to judicial oversight). The Banishment Act, which allowed the government to deport any non-citizens which it deemed to be a threat to the country, was repealed. The Print and Publications Act was amended so that media organizations no longer need to renew their license every year, which the government argues will make for a freer media. The Universities and University Colleges Act, which had banned students from joining political parties and engaging in political parties, has been amended to allow students to join political parties. Yet it still prevents them from engaging in partisan activities on campus. Moreover, any student can still be barred from joining any organisation that the university deems to be “unsuitable to [his] interests and well-being”. Finally, the government has announced that it will repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a “National Harmony Act”, although the contents of the new bill are still unknown.
The opposition has tended to be cautiously optimistic about these developments, but they have lamented that some of Najib’s ‘major’ reforms might be little more than cosmetic changes. For example, in July 2011, protesters who demanded electoral transparency were met with tear gas and water cannons. Furthermore, the opposition claims that UMNO itself is unreconstructed, with a strong conservative Malay base which blocks any attempts for more radical changes (such as dismantling affirmative action/NEP).
Najib leads the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the governing alliance of parochial and sectarian-based parties which has governed Malaysia since 1957 and took its current name in 1973. UMNO is, by far, the hegemonic force in the BN equation, dominating all of its junior partners and imposing its direction and agenda on the rest of the coalition.
The UMNO needs no presentation. The three other main national players in the BN are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan (Malaysian People’s Movement Party) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The first two cater to the Chinese electorate, while the later represents Indians; however, in both cases, their legitimacy and support with their intended electorate has been badly weakened by their subordination to the Malay UMNO. Furthermore, all parties have been crippled by years of infighting which have left them pretty much entirely useless. Nevertheless, the MCA remains pretty influential outside of politics – it controls Malaysia’s best-selling English daily newspaper, The Star, and also controls a major Chinese newspaper.
The BN includes nine other parties in addition to the four aforementioned parties, and all but one of them are regional parties based in Sabah or Sarawak – and once again, they mostly represent specific ethnic groups. In Sarawak, UMNO does not run candidates and the political scene is entirely dominated by various regional parties affiliated to the BN – notably Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), which has governed governed the region continuously since the party’s creation in 1973.
The opposition is a three-party coalition known as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance, PR). The PR was founded before the 2008 election, in the footsteps of a quasi-identical opposition coalition which did quite well in the 1999 election but collapsed before the 2004 election. The PR is made up of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
The PKR is Anwar Ibrahim’s party, founded in 1999 after Anwar’s expulsion from UMNO. Although the PKR’s leadership and clientele is largely Malay, it is probably one of the most multi-racial parties in the very racially polarized world of Malaysian politics. PKR largely focuses on corruption, ‘change’, social justice and democratic reform; a platform which tends to appeal to young secular and/or afffluent urban Malay voters, notably in Kuala Lumpur. Critics often deride the PKR as a family business: Anwar is the parliamentary leader; the party’s president is Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar is a PKR MP in Kuala Lumpur.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP) was founded in 1965 as the Malaysian branch of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. Whereas the PAP has shifted from socialism to conservative free-market economics, the DAP has remained a left-leaning social democratic party and a member of the Socialist International. The DAP is a predominantly Chinese party, and finds most support in Chinese constituencies (notably in Kuala Lumpur or the Chinese-plurality state of Penang); although it has a few Indian MPs and leaders. Having consistently been in opposition to UMNO since the ill-fated 1969 election, the DAP strongly opposes pro-Malay affirmative action policies (the NEP) and adheres to the 1960s idea of ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, developed by the PAP’s Lee Kuan Yew. The DAP has been accused of racism and chauvinism by the governing parties.
The PAS, as briefly described above, was founded in 1956 as the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. The PAS ostensibly seeks to establish an Islamic state or at least a state structured around Islamic religious law and traditions, but it has tended to moderate its Islamism because of its alliance with the DAP and PKR. However, unlike both of those parties, it has kept silent about affirmative action policies. Because of its alliance with the Chinese DAP and the secular PKR, some Islamic clerics and leaders – a few of which are affiliated to the BN – have been critical of the PAS, which they claim has lost touch with their Islamic values.
Both parties led relatively similar campaigns, both pledging to reduce the cost of living, invest more in social programs (such as healthcare, education, public housing) and crack down on corruption.
The government spent the few months before the election doling out the goodies: various public works projects (in marginal constituencies…), cash handouts for poorer families, pay raises for civil servants and promises of affordable housing or new highways.
The main difference between the BN and PR was affirmative action. The PR, specifically the PKR and DAP (the PAS remained silent), pledged to dismantle affirmative action policies (the NEP) which have favoured Malays and other bumiputra. The opposition, claiming that the NEP has been perverted, it has ended up favouring a select few with little trickle-down effect to other Malays and it has dulled their incentives to excel; they wish to replace the NEP by a real meritocracy, which they claim would encourage Malays to excel and leveling the playing field. The government’s official discourse, in recent years, has been less openly Malay nationalist than in the past (although many UMNO hardliners continue to talk in tones of Ketuanan Melayu). It still opposes doing away with affirmative action entirely, arguing that significant gaps between the ethnic groups still exist. At times, some UMNO leaders – including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – have lamented that some Malays have treated their privileges as a right and neglected their studies. The government has also spearheaded a massive promotional/PR campaign, 1Malaysia, stressing national unity and the country’s multi-racial identity. The opposition has said that 1Malaysia is nothing but another gimmick by the BN; keeping in line with the Malaysian tradition of politicians accusing their opponents of being Israeli lackeys and spies, Anwar said something about 1Malaysia being inspired by an Israeli campaign (One Israel was Ehud Barak’s political coalition in 1999).
BN very much ran two parallel campaigns, reflecting UMNO’s long-standing mastery of political communication. On the one hand, Najib targeted urban and secular voters by presenting himself as a modern and progressive reformer who has been boldly modernizing Malaysian politics since 2009. On the other hand, in rural Malay areas, UMNO ran a whole other campaign – one designed to scare Malay voters away from PR and reassuring its conservative and ethnonationalist grassroots that UMNO will continue to champion Malay rights. UMNO, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has campaigned alongside the Malay nationalist (many critics would say racist and extremist) Perkasa organization. In its time-honoured strategy of playing races against one another, UMNO tried to warn Chinese voters from voting for the opposition by saying that the PAS would impose Islamic law on the Chinese and that dismantling affirmative action would spark race riots like in 1969 (UMNO has often used the threat of race riots to justify the NEP and affirmative action). At the same time, a former PAS cleric now associated with the governing alliance exhorted Muslims (Malays) to vote for BN, saying – bluntly – that an opposition victory would mean “equal rights for all”.
Turnout was 84.84%, the highest turnout in decades (according to IDEA’s data). The results were:
Barisan Nasional 47.83% (-2.44%) winning 133 seats (-7)
UMNO 29.32% winning 88 seats (+9)
PBB (Sarawak) 2.10% winning 14 seats (nc)
MCA 8.14% winning 7 seats (-8)
PRS (Sarawak) 0.54% winning 6 seats (nc)
MIC 2.64% winning 4 seats (+1)
PBS (Sabah) 0.8% winning 4 seats (+1)
SPDP (Sarawak) 0.5% winning 4 seats (nc)
UPKO (Sabah) 0.6% winning 3 seats (-1)
Gerakan 1.38% winning 1 seat (-1)
SUPP (Sarawak) 1.21% winning 1 seat (-5)
PBRS (Sabah) 0.08% winning 1 seat (nc)
PPP 0.07% winning 1 seat (nc)
LDP (Sabah) winning 0 seats (-1)
Pakatan Rakyat 50.87% (+4.12%) winning 89 seats (+7)
DAP 15.71% winning 38 seats (+10)
PKR 20.39% winning 30 seats (-1)
PAS 14.77% winning 21 seats (-2)
Independents 1.75% winning 0 seats (nc)
The governing alliance, in power since Malaysian independence in 1957, was reelected to yet another term in office. It was, however, as The Economist put it rather eloquently “a tawdry victory”. Indeed, the BN was reelected and holds about 59% of the seats in the new Parliament, but it was also the BN’s worst result in its existence – even worse than the previous record low, set in the last election in 2008. In fact, the BN actually lost the popular vote to the opposition, winning only 47.8% of the vote against 50.9% for the PR.
Therefore, the government lost the election with only 48% of the vote but won nearly 60% of the seats in the Parliament; a result which reflects the extent of malapportionment and gerrymandering in Malaysia, which have given the BN a structural advantage going into any election. Constituencies boundaries are gerrymandered as to give an advantage to the governing alliance. However, the bigger issue is malapportionment – the states which favour the governing alliance are overrepresented, as are the rural Malay seats where the UMNO has strong support. For example, the most populous state in the country, Selangor (5.4 million), which also happens to be an opposition base, has 22 seats. Sarawak, which has a population of 2.4 million, elects 31 MPs. Similarly, the states of Johor (3.2 million), Sabah (3.1 million) and Perak (2.2 million) all return more MPs than Selangor despite having a substantially smaller population. These four aforementioned states also tend to be government strongholds, particularly the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The largest swings in this election came from Chinese constituencies. Whereas the opposition parties had won about 55-56% of the vote in predominantly Chinese constituencies (constituencies where both candidates are from Chinese parties) in the 2008 election, they won 64% of the vote and took all but 5 of the 45 seats in which both BN and PR candidates came from the Chinese parties. While UMNO’s vote held its popular vote from the last election and actually won 9 more seats than in the 2008 election, the Chinese parties of BN (MCA, Gerakan, SUPP) suffered the brunt of the coalition’s loses – as had already been the case in 2008 (the MCA already lost 16 seats in 2008, while Gerakan had lost 8 seats then). Similarly, the Chinese DAP was the opposition party which gained the most – it gained 10 seats and its share of the popular vote increased from 13.8% to 15.7% (the PKR’s vote increased from 18.6% to 20.4%, the PAS vote barely increased). At the state level, the PR also made sizable gains in Johor, where the Chinese vote had held up better for the government in 2008 than it had in Penang. The DAP won 4 seats in the state, up from only one in 2008. In the state legislature, the DAP won 13 seats – up from only 4 in 2008. The opposition’s campaign focused on scrapping affirmative action policies clearly appealed to the vast majority of Chinese voters. The obliteration – for the second time in a row – of the BN’s Chinese parties (MCA, Gerakan) places their mere existence into jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the result was a bit disappointing for Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition. They had really felt that they could actually win this election, and they had gone all-in to win it. Anwar even put his own political career on the line. The opposition did win the popular vote, but they only gained seven seats – and all of these gains were made by the DAP with the Chinese vote.
The two “Malay parties” of the PR – PKR and PAS – actually lost seats. The PAS suffered rather major setbacks in Kedah, where the BN/UMNO regained control of the state government which it had lost to PAS in 2008 (overall, PAS lost 7 seats in the state legislature, all to BN; it lost all but one of its six federal MPs); and in Kelantan, the PAS stronghold, where the BN (UMNO) gained 5 seats in the state legislature from the Islamist party. It definitely appears as if the UMNO’s “parallel” campaign in rural Malay areas, playing on ethnic/racial fears and stoking Malay nationalist sentiments, worked out quite well for the party – far more than the 1Malaysia/Najib-the-progressive-reformer stuff did in urban and Chinese areas.
The PR failed to make the gains it would have needed in rural Malay/bumiputra seats in peninsular Malaya and, more importantly, in Sabah and Sarawak. In the two oil-rich Borneo states, both real BN strongholds, the DAP gained urban Chinese constituencies but the PKR and PAS failed to gain the rural seats.
The PR is quite bitter over the loss of these seats, claiming that it lost marginal Malay constituencies because of the BN’s dirty tricks and its generous distribution of goodies (free food, drink, straight cash and even raffling cars; voters in Penang also got a performance of Gangnam Style from PSY himself at a BN rally!). Anwar has said that his coalition considers the election fraudulent and that the election commission failed (again). The opposition also claimed that the government brought it workers from Bangladesh to vote for them. This claim might appear a bit extraneous, but there was a big scandal in Sabah a few years ago where the government gave Malaysian ID cards to many foreigners/immigrants in return for their votes (there is currently a Royal Commission investigating the subject).
At the state level, the BN won 275 state legislators against 229 for the opposition (once again, the BN-ruled states tend to have a slightly larger state legislature; and Sarawak, a BN stronghold, did not hold state elections). The opposition (PAS) lost the state of Kedah, which it had gained from the BN in the last election. However, the opposition parties now have a stranglehold on the three states they still govern – urban Selangor (Kuala Lumpur is a federal territory enclaved within the state, but federal territories have no elected legislature), where they have 79% of the seats; Chinese-plurality Penang where they hold a three-quarters majority and the Islamist stronghold of Kelantan where the opposition still holds a 73% majority (smaller, as noted above, than in 2008). They came within two seats of winning a majority in Terengganu, which had been governed by the PAS between 1959 and 1961 and again between 1999 and 2004. The opposition also made substantial gains in Johor (+12) and Sabah (+10), although the BN is still firmly in control in both states, especially in Sabah where they still hold 80% of the seats despite losing 10 seats! The opposition lost ground, substantially, in Kedah and Kelantan, and lost one seat in Negeri Sembilan (once again, the DAP gained but the Malay PKR and PAS lost ground).
The opposition’s support is threefold: a large urban element, an ever larger Chinese element and a slightly smaller conservative Islamic element in some states. The urban middle-classes, including many urban Malays, are generally more concerned about corruption, good governance and cost of living rather than the BN’s old play on racial and religious identities. The opposition won all but two of Kuala Lumpur’s 11 MPs and it swept the extensively urbanized state of Selangor. Given that the Chinese population tends to be mostly urban, the two elements tend to go hand in hand. The opposition swept the urban Chinese vote in Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Ipoh, Malacca and Johor. There is also an element of conservative Islamic support in the opposition’s coalition. The Islamic party has tended to be quite powerful in Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu – three relatively rural Malay states. The conservative Islamic tradition in those states is perhaps due to their status under British colonial rule prior to 1946 – these states, along with Johor and tiny Perlis, formed the ‘Unfederated Malay States’ – British protectorates but British rule over these states was less direct than in the Federated Malay States (Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan).
These results could place Prime Minister Najib Razak is a difficult position, similar to how his predecessor (Badawi) was forced to resign after the BN’s loses in the 2008 election. Most UMNO hardliners never liked Najib to begin with and only halfheartedly backed his reformist and moderate agenda in the hopes that they would allow the BN to win this election. While the BN did win the election, many UMNO hardliners might turn on Najib given the loses incurred by the BN. The UMNO, including Najib, has already blamed the government’s loses on a “Chinese wave” (analysts say it was more of a “urban wave” than anything else) for the opposition. The hardliners, like in 1969, will probably look to oust Najib – perceived as too soft and moderate – and restructure the governing coalition as a defender of Malay interests. Their argument is that Najib’s reformism and moderation on racial affairs failed as the Chinese vote still went to the opposition in droves. Anyhow, the BN is now basically an exclusively Malay affair – the MCA was decimated, and the UMNO and its various Sabah/Sarawak playthings are even more hegemonic within the coalition. It can no longer seriously and legitimately claim that it is a national coalition when it has become an ethnic Malay party. There is no longer substantial Chinese acquiescence for UMNO’s policies, a role which had been played by the MCA and Gerakan in the past.
The BN won another term in office, the preordained result of every Malaysian election since independence; but the result shows that the governing coalition is really nearing the end of its hegemony. It was kept in office thanks to its time-honoured ability to play on ethnic/racial sentiments and appeal to Malay nationalism; but above all only by the simple fact that the electoral system is basically rigged in its favour because of gross malapportionment.
Malaysia is as ethnically polarized as ever, with a quasi-homogeneously Malay governing alliance and an opposition with a distinctively Chinese character. If Najib is able to hold his chair against his party’s hardliners, he might choose to continue his reformist policies; if he is replaced by somebody closer to UMNO’s Malay nationalist hardliners, then the government might prove less friendly towards ‘modernization’. At the same time, the opposition’s defeat begs the question of whether or not Anwar Ibrahim will (or can) continue to lead the opposition. The opposition might benefit from a fresher face, given how it appeals in good part to younger voters; but does it actually have such a face?
Legislative elections were held in Iceland on April 27, 2013. All 63 members of the Althing (Alþingi), Iceland’s unicameral legislature were up for reelection. The Althing is the oldest extant legislative body in the world, founded in 930. 54 seats in the Althing are ‘constituency seats’ elected in multi-member constituencies (Reykjavík North, Reykjavík South, SW, NW, NE, South) which have 9 seats except for the SW which has 11 and the NW which has 7. Voters are allowed to modify the pre-ranked list of candidates on a party list by altering the ordering or crossing out candidates which they do not like. Constituency seats are distributed to parties based on a modified version of the d’Hondt method, and parties must clear a 5% threshold nationally to qualify for seats. Nine additional seats, called ‘leveling seats’, are allocated to adjust the result to achieve some kind of proportionality at the national level (again, only parties winning over 5% nationally are eligible). The two Reykjavík constituencies and the SW have two leveling seats, the three other constituencies have only one leveling seat.
Brief primer on Icelandic politics
Iceland became a republic separate from Denmark in 1944, it had already been a sovereign state as a monarchy in a personal union with the Danish king since an Act of Union in 1918.
While Swedish, Danish and Norwegian politics have traditionally been dominated by social democratic parties, Icelandic politics since independence have been dominated by the centre-right Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, IP). The Independence Party was founded in 1929 through a merger of a liberal and conservative party. By virtue of being at the forefront of the fight for independence, the IP became the dominant party in Icelandic politics after its foundation and could be called something of a ‘natural governing party’. The IP was the largest party in every single election between 1931 and 2009, and although it did not always participate in the governing coalitions during this time period, it was present in most coalitions and often held the office of Prime Minister. Unlike right-wing parties in the other Scandinavian countries, the IP does not have the ‘bourgeois party’ label attached to it and it has been able to build a broad base of support and very strong roots in Icelandic society (10% of the population are members of the party). While most of the IP’s support stems from a predominantly urban/suburban affluent and well-educated middle-class, it has traditionally maintained a respectable base of working-class support and it has been dominant with fishermen. The IP has benefited from the strong backing of the fishing lobby, large businesses and most of the private media (for example, the popular daily newspaper Morgunblaðið).
Notwithstanding its conservative orientation, the IP has accepted the creation of a welfare state comparable to the generous Scandinavian model systems found in the other Scandinavian states. The IP often prides itself with the transformation of Iceland from a poor, isolated island nation to a modern, affluent and egalitarian state (Iceland has one of the highest HDIs and one of the most egalitarian states in the world). Under Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson (1991-2004), the IP shifted to the right with an agenda of privatization, major tax cuts (abolishing the wealth tax, cut the corporate tax to 18%) and deregulation. Oddson is credited for having spurred economic growth and created a vibrant entrepreneurial climate, but since the 2008 financial crisis his deregulation policies have been criticized for having created an unrestrained climate which led to the financial collapse. Since leaving office, Davíð Oddsson has remained a very powerful actor behind the scenes. He is currently one of two editors at the Morgunblaðið newspaper.
One of the main issues in Icelandic politics has been the European Union. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA), the Schengen agreement and cooperates with the EU on a number of policy matters. However, EU membership remains a very divisive and controversial issue in Iceland. One of the main roadblocks to EU membership is Iceland’s large fishing industry, which would be subject to tough EU quotas and regulations if the country were to join the EU. The IP is strongly pro-American and pro-NATO, but it has opposed EU membership.
Traditionally, the second largest party – consistently so between 1931 and 1999 (save for 1956 and 1978) – was the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn, PP), founded in 1916. The PP has been a junior partner in a number of IP governments (it has also governed with the centre-left, less often), most recently between 1995 and 2007, and has sometimes held the Prime Ministerial position in the IP’s stead. Described as a liberal party, the PP is a unique Scandinavian variant of liberalism – Nordic agrarianism. The PP is, at its roots, a rural farmers’ party, like the Centre parties in Sweden, Finland or Norway. In contrast to continental classical liberalism, the PP has tended to be cooler towards economic liberalization, although it was the junior partner Davíð Oddsson’s cabinets between 1995 and 2004.
The PP has traditionally been hostile towards EU membership. In 2009, it changed its position in favour of EU membership, but with so many caveats that it did not equate to much. Earlier this year, the PP once again changed its position and readopted its traditional anti-EU stance.
The Icelandic left has never achieved the level of power and political hegemony enjoyed by its sister parties in Sweden or Norway. The Icelandic left, for most of its history, was almost evenly divided between a socialist/communist party (the People’s Alliance) and a very centrist and moderate social democratic party (SDP). The left was further weakened by the emergence of small ephemeral parties, including a feminist party between 1983 and 1995 which won up to 10% of the vote at one time. Most of the left united in the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin, SDA) in 1999, initially created as an alliance of the People’s Alliance, the SDP, the Womens’ List and a SDP splitoff. The Alliance’s moderate Blairite-like platform alienated some of the more left-wing members of the former People’s Alliance who formed, that same year, the Left-Green Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð, LG or VG), which is an eco-socialist party.
The SDA is perhaps the strongest supporter of EU membership to be found in Icelandic politics, with an unambiguous and longstanding stance in support of joining the EU. The Left-Greens, however, are against EU membership and are also anti-NATO (Iceland joined NATO in 1949, a decision which had sparked major protests at the time).
The Icelandic political system was turned on its head by the 2008 financial crisis.
The financial crisis and its aftermath
In the years running up to the financial collapse in the fall of 2008, Iceland had been booming economically and its rapid economic growth and concomitant rise in household incomes earned the country the moniker of “Nordic tiger” among other names. The population embraced the IP governments’ economic and fiscal policies which had allowed for the economic boom, and foreign observers such as the IMF often praised Iceland for its robust economic growth and its entrepreneurial climate.
Like in Ireland, the crisis was brought upon by the behaviour of Icelandic banks in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The country’s three largest banks had expanded dramatically, an expansion which they financed with loans on the interbank lending market and then by deposits from foreigners (notably in the UK and the Netherlands). Icelandic households also accumulated a gigantic private debt, equivalent to 213% of disposable income. These factors led to high inflation rates, exacerbated by the Central Bank’s policies (effectively printing money on demand). The crisis unfolded when the banks became unable to refinance their debts, and they were too big that the Central Bank could not act as a lender of last reserve and guarantee the payment of the debt contracted by the banks.
Within a week in late September/early October 2008, the three largest banks were either nationalized or placed on receivership as the government – a IP-SDA coalition led by IP Prime Minister Geir Haarde – struggle to prevent a situation of national bankruptcy. The crisis took on an international aspect with the collapse of Icesave, an international savings bank operating in the UK and the Netherlands as a subsidiary of the Landsbanki. As the banking system collapsed, Iceland informed Britain that the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund did not have the funds to repay deposit guarantees to the Icesave’s foreign customers. Britain and the Netherlands demanded that the Icelandic state should at least repay the minimum deposit guarantees. In response to Iceland’s refusal to guarantee anything, London controversially invoked anti-terrorism legislation to freeze all Icelandic bank assets in the UK.
The 2008 crisis led to a rapid devaluation of the Icelandic krónur (which had been very overvalued in the run-up to the crisis), a severe economic recession (-6.6% in 2009, -4.1% in 2010), a large increase in unemployment (from 1.6% to 8%) and the explosion of the public debt (29% in 2007, 102% in 2011). Iceland received a $5.1bn bailout from the IMF and Nordic countries in November 2008 and enforced strict capital controls which remain in place.
The financial crisis led to major political changes. Citizens were incensed by the inaction of Prime Minister Geir Haarde in the run-up to the crisis and the handling of the aftermath. There were large protests – the largest since the anti-NATO riots in 1949 – against the government in January 2009. These protests, dubbed the Kitchenware Revolution, compelled Geir Haarde and his government to resign. He was replaced by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the SDA minister of social affairs and social security in the outgoing government. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir formed an interim cabinet with the SDA and the Left-Greens.
In snap elections in April 2009, for the first time in Icelandic history, the left (SDA and LG) won an absolute majority in the Althing. The IP, which lost nearly 13% of its vote compared to the 2007 election, won its worst result ever and fell into second for the first time. A new grassroots populist movement, the Citizens’ Movement (Borgarahreyfingin) won 7% and 4 seats. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s left-wing coalition (SDA and Left-Greens) was reelected.
Four years later, Iceland’s economic situation has undeniably improved significantly. While the country isn’t entirely out of the woods just yet, the economic crisis is over and there are clear signs of a healthy recovery. The economy grew by 2.9% in 2011, 1.6% in 2012 and will grow by 1.9% this year. Unemployment has fallen from a high of 8.1% in 2010 to 5% this year. The public debt, after having exploded to over 100% of GDP during the crisis, has been reduced to about 92% of the GDP and is projected to fall to 72% by 2018. Similarly, the budgetary deficit has been reduced to more healthy levels.
The left-wing government has been criticized for being too friendly to the IMF and foreign interests, not preoccupying itself enough with the country’s living conditions.
The government lost a lot of political capital with the Icesave dispute, in which it was criticized for being too accommodating with foreign countries. In November 2008, Iceland had reached a tentative understanding with the UK and the Netherlands in which it agreed to guarantee the liabilities of the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund, while the UK and the Netherlands agreed to lend the necessary funds to the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund. Bilateral agreements were reached between the three actors in June 2009, and the first Icesave bill was passed – with amendments setting a ceiling on the repayment of the loans based on the country’s GDP – by the Althing in August 2009. However, these amendments were rejected by the British and Dutch governments, forcing Reykjavík to hastily approve a second bill to which the two foreign governments did not object to. However, for the second time in Icelandic history, the President (Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson) effectively vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it and forced a referendum on the Icesave deal in March 2010. The deal was overwhelmingly rejected by a Soviet-like margin: 98% voted against the bill, only 2% voted in favour of the government’s bill.
In December 2010, after renewed negotiations, the Althing passed a third Icesave bill which had better conditions for Iceland. Once again, however, the President refused to sign the bill and it was put to the people in April 2011. Voters rejected the deal, though by a less lopsided margin: 59.8% voted against the bill.
After the failure of Icesave 3, London and The Hague decided to break off negotiations and drag Iceland to the EFTA Court to resolve the matter. On January 28, 2013, the EFTA Court cleared Iceland of all charges. It ruled that the state was not required to pay out if its deposit-insurance scheme had no money because of a banking crisis. The court’s decision was a blow to the government, which had been keen on negotiating with the UK and the Netherlands.
The government’s popularity was also hurt by the kerfuffle surrounding the constitutional convention and the proposed new constitution. The government, arguing that the country’s constitution (an amended version of an 1874 document) was archaic and had been unable to face the 2008 crisis, led the charge for the adoption of a new constitution. In November 2010, voters elected a 25-member constitutional assembly from a roster of 522 candidates. The assembly was tasked with reviewing broad areas of the constitution and come up with a new document. However, in January 2011 the Supreme Court (dominated by IP-appointed judges) invalidated the results of the election. In response, the Althing appointed the assembly’s 25 members to an alternative constitutional council which then drafted and unanimously passed a new constitution. The new constitution includes electoral reform (one nationwide constituency, in effect abolishing rural overrepresentation), national ownership of natural resources, direct democracy (referenda on bills if 10% of the electorate demands it), freedom of information and checks and balances. In an October 2012 referendum, two-thirds of voters approved the council’s draft and also voted resoundingly in favour of other key parts of the bill (electoral reform, national ownership of national resources, direct democracy).
Notwithstanding the electorate’s support for the bill, a number of politicians – most from the opposition parties (IP, PP) but also the governing SDA – started undermining the bill for a variety of reasons. The fishing lobby, for example, is not very keen on national ownership of national resources because it wants to keep fishing grounds for owners of big vessels. These MPs banded together to postpone a vote on the bill and change the rules for the adoption of a new constitution by requiring that it is supported by two-thirds of the new parliament and a popular majority representing at least 40% of the population. This deal, technically, means that the new constitution could be approved quicker (in the past, it would have needed majority support from two successive legislatures) but, in practice, it makes it tougher for it to pass. Although the constitution’s current comatose state is largely due to the IP’s opposition and sabotage, many feel as if the left-wing government could have been more forceful and pushed the constitution through. It had the votes to do so, but rural SDA parliamentarians joined the opposition in undermining the bill.
With the formation of a government led by the resolutely pro-European SDA, Reykjavík kicked off formal negotiations with the EU and became a candidate country in June 2010. 11 out of 33 acquis chapters have already been closed, and 27 remain open. The most controversial subjects – fishing quotas and whaling – have yet to be opened. There was, initially, some support for EU membership around the time of the 2008 financial crisis when some felt that Iceland would have been better off with the euro. However, with the ongoing crisis in the EU/eurozone, the mood has turned against EU membership, undermining the government’s pro-EU agenda. Many feel that the SDA wasted precious time and energy in its attempts to get Iceland to join the EU quickly.
Opponents argue that Iceland is better off outside the European Union, insulated from the Eurozone crisis. While most voters support continuing and completing negotiations, a hefty majority oppose joining the EU (only a quarter or so of voters seem pro-EU at this point).
Parties and issues
Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir did not run for reelection. She was replaced as SDA leader by Árni Páll Árnason, a rather stale and uncharismatic former cabinet minister. Longtime Left-Green leader Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, a senior parliamentarian, stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the minister of education, science and culture. While Árnason is stale and boring, Jakobsdóttir is a pretty sharp politician whose popularity has tended to surpass that of her party.
The IP leader, like in the last election, is Bjarni Benediktsson, a fairly wealthy former businessman. Benediktsson has been compared by some local journalists to Mitt Romney, a somewhat shady businessman who was born rich and is “held hostage” by his party’s right-wing factions (in this case, the ‘Christian right’ of the IP and the low-tax/libertarian right). The IP had a wide and comfortable lead in polls until February, when the PP started surging. Prior to that point, it had up to 35-40% support in polls.
The Romney comparisons are also pretty accurate because, like Romney, Benediktsson is uninspiring to both the wider electorate and many members of his own party. Many feel that Benediktsson is too tied up to the IP’s old culture of corruption and nepotism. However, unlike Romney, those who tend to be the most queasy about him within his party are the moderates – the IP’s Europhilic moderates, alienated by the IP’s Christian conservative and libertarian right wings. He is constantly at risk of being toppled by his deputy, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, the former mayor of Reykjavík and the popular standard bearer of IP moderates. She challenged him for the party leadership in 2011 and came close to toppling him, it seems widely accepted that he would be overthrown if she feels like getting rid of him.
Indeed, on April 11, Benediktsson publicly announced that he was considering stepping down before the election. He backtracked a few days later and announced that he would stay on, as none of his leadership rivals stepped up to challenge him. This rather bizarre gamble paid off for him, since it boosted the IP’s horrible polling numbers and placed the party in a statistical tie with the PP.
The IP’s economic platform promised tax cuts and the creation of a flat tax (an unpopular stance since many feel that this would only benefit the wealthy). The IP rejects any blame for the 2008 crisis, which they say was caused by international circumstances and the worldwide banking crisis at the time.
The PP’s leader is Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (SDG), who at 37 would be the youngest Prime Minister in Iceland. He is also the wealthiest parliamentarian in the country, having inherited his father’s wealth (his father was a prominent businessman).
The PP’s ideology is not something which is set in stone, many of its critics often attack the party for changing ideologies on a regular basis. This year, the PP had a clearly populist and nationalistic campaign, keeping in line with SDG’s tough intransigent stance on the Icesave case (he opposed reimbursing the foreigners). The party’s landmark campaign promise was writing off 20% of all price-indexed household mortgages, which would be paid by taking money from “vulture funds” (foreign creditors, claim holders). Those foreign creditors who agree to pay for this write-off would be rewarded by being allowed to move their remaining money out of the country (which they currently cannot because of capital controls).
The PP surged in polls starting in February and took a very comfortable lead over all other parties by March. However, the IP’s late surge and revelations that SDG had lied about obtaining a degree from Oxford (he attended Oxford, but never received any kind of degree) hurt the PP in the final stretch.
The past four years have seen a proliferation of new parties, oftentimes protest parties. The creation of these new parties reflect both left-wing unease and dissatisfaction with the incumbent government, judged by many on the left to be too favourable to the IMF and foreign ‘elites’; but also wider dissatisfaction with the wider political class, a lingering sentiment since the 2008 crisis. The IP and PP, the two main “old parties” from the pre-crisis political system, are still perceived as having only incompletely ‘cleaned’ themselves up since 2008. In the pre-crisis political system, the IP and the PP’s support had been maintained by corrupt clientelistic networks and inside deals.
Bright Future (Björt framtíð, BF) was founded in February 2012 by various dissident members from established parties (PP, SDA) but also Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr’s Best Party (a satirical party which won the 2010 local elections in the capital and has since turned ‘serious’). The BF is a social liberal and green party which supports EU and Eurozone membership. It also wants to diversify the economy, by creating industrial variety.
Dawn (Dögun) is a left-leaning party created in March 2012 from the merger of The Movement (created by 3 Citizens’ Movement MPs), the remnants of the Citizens’ Movement (4 seats in 2009) and the right-wing libertarian/populist Liberal Party (founded in 1998, 4 seats in 2003 and 2007, lost all seats in 2009). Dawn is a left-wing which supports abolishing indexation on consumer loans (mortgages), a cap on interest rates and investigations into responsibility for the 2008 crisis. It supports the new constitution and has a vague “let the people decide” stance on EU membership. Interestingly, the Liberal Party was a right-wing populist libertarian party, with an anti-immigrant twist; this direction does not seem to be reflected in Dawn.
Rainbow (Regnboginn) is an eco-socialist and Eurosceptic party which broke away from the Left-Greens in May 2013. It strongly opposes EU membership.
The Icelandic Pirate Party (Píratar) also gained significant support in polls, on a vaguely centre-left platform focusing on direct democracy, internet privacy and copyright reform.
The Households Party (Flokkur Heimilanna), founded on April 1 2012 by moderate IP dissidents, is a vaguely right-of-centre populist movement which wants to free Icelanders from ‘debt slavery’ but is otherwise vague on specifics. It supports lower taxes and increased banking regulation.
Further right, the Right-Greens (Hægri Grænir), founded in 2010, are a libertarian party focused on lower taxes (flat tax), smaller government (anti-bureaucracy) and adopting a new currency pegged to the US dollar. The ‘green’ stuff largely seems like a gimmick. Later in the campaign, the Right-Greens added a borderline xenophobic twist to its thing, talking about removing ‘undesirables’.
Democracy Watch (Lýðræðisvaktin) is a single-issue group founded in February 2013 to support the new constitution and oppose the IP’s attempts to stall/sabotage the bill.
Turnout was 81.4%, down from about 85% in 2009. The results were as follows, with seat changes compared to the standings at dissolution:
Independence 26.7% (+3.3%) winning 19 seats (+3)
Progressive 24.43% (+9.6%) winning 19 seats (+10)
SDA 12.85% (-16.9%) winning 9 seats (-10)
Left-Green 10.87% (-10.8%) winning 7 seats (-4)
Bright Future 8.25% (+8.25%) winning 6 seats (+4)
Pirate Party 5.1% (+5.1%) winning 3 seats (+2)
Dawn 3.1% (+3.1%) winning 0 seats (-2)
Households Party 3.02% (+3.02%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Democracy Watch 2.46% (+2.46%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Right-Greens 1.73% (+1.73%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Rainbow 1.07% (+1.07%) winning 0 seats (+2)
All others 0.42% winning 0 seats (nc)
The IP, the old dominant party which had been kicked out of power in 2009, won the election – it won the popular vote by a bit over 2 points over the PP, although parties ended up tied in the seat count because the PP raked up seats in its overrepresented rural strongholds. Considering how bad the last months have been for the IP, it was, in that context, a good result for the party. Benediktsson’s risky gamble of putting his leadership on the line immediately before the election paid off for him. He likely calculated it as to force his internal rivals to rally around him as to avoid what would have been a very bizarre switch in leadership only weeks from the election. It was, in retrospect, a smart move by a leader trying to assert his authority over his party.
Yet, the IP’s victory is far from spectacular. Sure, it improved its standing compared to 2009 – but 2009 was an historic low for the party, a catastrophic result due to ex2ceptional circumstances. Its result this year, a bit under 27%, is the party’s second worst result after 2009 (in 1987, it won 27.2%). Benediktsson’s control of the party is still quite shaky, and the IP isn’t back to its comfortable pre-crisis standings.
The main winner in the election was the PP. The old farmers’ party roared back to old heights – winning its best result since 1979 and reclaiming the second place position it had lost in 1999 (when the left kind of united). This success wasn’t preordained – before the PP surge in the first days of February, the PP had been polling at or slightly below its 2009 result. The party’s leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson ran a good campaign, even if he was roughed a bit in the last few days of the campaign with criticism of the PP’s platform and the Oxford degree scandal.
The PP’s populist and nationalistic platform struck a chord with many voters. Even if the country’s economic situation is undeniably better than in 2009, many citizens are still knee-deep (or higher!) in debt (mortgages etc) and have suffered the brunt of tax hikes and spending cuts in the past four years. The PP’s appealing promise of writing off 20% of price-indexed household mortgages by taking money from the “bad guys” (foreign creditors) was popular with middle-aged home owning voters who are sitting on negative equity and big loans. Its nationalist rhetoric – blaming foreign investors and creditors for the 2008 crisis (although the PP did admit that there should have been more state regulation) – was also popular with an electorate which had very much disliked the left-wing government’s handling of the Icesave crisis with London and The Hague. The PP promised to be the party which will fight for homeowners and the regular citizens, against those who want to let the “hedge funds” decide the country’s fate.
The main loser was, clearly, the left. Both governing left-wing parties lost heavily: the SDA collapsed to a mere 12.9%, certainly some kind of historic low for the left by some standards; the Left-Greens lost over half of their vote from the 2009 election. In part, this is a restoration of “normality” – Iceland is a fundamentally and structurally conservative right-leaning country which had no experience with purely left-wing governments prior to 2009 and the crisis. The Left-Greens in particular had done extremely (abnormally) well in 2009 (21.7%) due to non-leftist voters choosing to vote for them, either because of their reputation as a ‘clean’ and untainted party or solely out of dissatisfaction with their traditional parties (read: the IP, primarily).
But this isn’t entirely a return to “normality”. Although the Icelandic left is historically weak and marginalized by the IP/PP, it has never – in my memory – been this weak (only 24% between the two governing parties). It is undeniable that the left suffered from just having the bad luck of governing a country during a period of economic turmoil. Many Icelanders are still feeling the financial pain, and they want a government which will get them out of it. But unlike Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy – where the economy is still going down or has gone so far down that recovery is very slow, and the government obviously gets blamed for it – Iceland is no longer in that situation. The recovery from 2008 is real and probably perceptible. The economy is growing, unemployment is back down, the debt and deficits are slowly being controlled and inflation is dropping. Many observers have felt that voters in Iceland were just ungrateful on April 27: unfairly punishing a government which saved the country from economic ruin and national bankruptcy. Whether you share this view or not is subjective, but it does have some worth to it…
A rather cynical Icelandic blogger in the tabloid newspaper DV had this to say about his country:
Or as one of my colleagues put it: “America is the land of opportunities, but Iceland is the land of second opportunities.”
The small size of our population might have something to do with this. We can not afford to have people out of work, we need every able hand there is. That’s why we’re always ready to give people a second chance. We’re always willing to forgive. The Icelandic Way is such: If you mess up real bad, you just declare yourself bankrupt and get a new “kennitala” (personnummer) and then you can start all over again.
Icelandic society is like a computer game. It doesn’t matter if you lose, you just start again. You have endless “lives”. And it doesn’t matter if you’re successful or if you’re bankrupt, you will always have money. You’re always driving that fancy car, living in that fancy house. (You can see it every day on the streets of Reykjavik. People who, according to the papers, are supposed to be “bankrupt”, are all driving their black Range Rovers and wearing their fur coats to work.) If you have too much debt that you can not pay, they will just “write them off”, and then you are free to start again! And when you’re starting again and you have no money, the banks will just lend it to you. So you never have to turn in your fancy car.
Same goes for the politicians. If they mess up the economy and bankrupt the nation, they just wait four years and then they’re back in office. We are very tolerant people.
The outgoing Prime Minister said that her party had been punished because it took tough decisions. No government, especially those on the left, like raising taxes and cutting spending. Few voters like that either. The government, forced to take these tough decisions to “save” the country, was punished at the polls. Furthermore, as aforementioned, many voters – still feeling the pain – felt as if the government was too friendly to creditors and focused more on respecting the IMF’s directives.
It is also likely that the left’s vote was further hurt by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s retirement. She leaves office personally popular, and the SDA’s leader has been criticized for not including her in the party’s campaign more.
The other major winner were the whole slew of new parties/protest parties. Iceland has had some strong new parties, largely grassroots populist parties, in the past; but they have never been this strong. In 2013, they won nearly 25% of the vote among themselves. This success, as aforementioned, reflects the dissatisfaction of many voters with the established parties. The incumbent left-wing government is unpopular, particularly on the left. The IP and PP are still seen by many as having only incompletely broken their ties with the past. Many critics of the IP and PP are keen on pointing out the continued influence of old party bosses – like Davíð Oddsson – within both parties, and the interconnection of the IP and the PP’s old elites.
The most successful new parties were Bright Future and the Pirates. These parties, and many of those which failed to break the threshold, largely took votes from the left. According to professor Stefan Olafsson, the right (IP and PP) lost only 8% or so of their 2009 voters while the governing left lost between 24 and 32% of their 2009 voters. About a third of 2009 LG voters supported the new parties, about 12-14% apiece for Bright Future and the Pirates. About a quarter or so of SDA voters supported new parties, including many for parties who were below the threshold. The governing parties were unable to convince voters that they should not “waste” their votes on parties which never had a chance of crossing the threshold. If the 2009 left-wing vote had been less dispersed, they would have done much better.
The results reflected the usual urban-rural split in Icelandic politics. The IP won the two Reykjavík constituencies (23% and 27% in the north and south respectively) and the suburban/exurban Southwest (30%). The SDA, Bright Future and Pirates also had predominantly urban support. In contrast, the PP won roughly similar numbers in the three rural constituencies (NW, NE, South) with roughly 35% of the vote in each. PP did rather decently in the urban and suburban areas, though: 16% in Reykjavík and 21.5% in the SW.
President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson charged PP leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson rather than IP leader Bjarni Benediktsson to form a government after the election. All parties except the Pirates and IP recommended that the President appoint SGD to form a government rather than Benediktsson, even if the IP claimed that it should have the first shot because it won the popular vote.
The coalition option which most people are talking about is a “conservative” and traditional coalition between IP and PP, with either Benediktsson or SDG as Prime Minister or switching Prime Ministers halfway through. The PP will have a very tough time accepting an IP-PP coalition under IP leadership, given that it would send back to their traditional junior partner role under IP control. It is thus unlikely that Benediktsson would be allowed to become Prime Minister with an IP-PP government, given that the PP is in a strong position to veto this option and Benediktsson would be a very weak Prime Minister with only partial authority over his party. It is possible that the IP and PP could agree to switching Prime Ministers halfway through the four year term, but that too seems unlikely.
An IP-PP government led by Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson would be more acceptable to the PP. Both parties are Eurosceptic and are not keen on the new constitution (the IP opposes it outright, many PPers are queasy about it). However, the IP will have a tough time accepting the PP’s populist agenda – SDG has said that the mortgage debt write-offs is a non-negotiable point for the PP in coalition negotiations, and the PP doesn’t seem like one to support the IP’s current low taxes/flat tax agenda right now. Early negotiations between the IP and the PP do not seem off to a promising start, and SDG has not really indicated that governing with his IP is his first preference.
The other option at this point involves the PP forming a more centrist or centre-left coalition. It could form a coalition with the SDA and Bright Future, in which the PP could probably have the enviable role of “unifier” in the coalition. The main issues is that both SDA and BF are pretty clearly pro-EU, and could insist on continuing negotiations as a precondition for any coalition – but the PP wouldn’t have much to lose, as it could be sure that the electorate would probably reject the EU in a referendum. The other issue is that the PP might find the SDA too friendly with investors for its tastes, but who says the PP can’t tame the populism down a bit?
A more unlikely option is a coalition with the PP, Left Greens and SDA. I’m not sure if the LGs or SDAs are hot on entering another government at this point, and the PP would probably not want to govern in such a left-leaning option.
There is some talk of the IP courting the SDA and BF to form an anti-PP coalition. This still appears rather unlikely, and it could be tactical stuff coming from the IP as it tries to get into government somehow – preferably with Benediktsson as Prime Minister. But if this is actually serious, the SDA could be in a kingmaker position at this point.
Minority governments are unusual in Iceland, but there has some talk of a PP minority government receiving external support from the centre-left BF and SDA. The Pirates, the only party which has ruled out participating in government, apparently favour a PP minority – could they even provide external support for such an option?
If the PP’s SDG becomes Prime Minister, which is probably the likeliest scenario at this point, what kind of direction would this mean for Iceland?
With any IP-PP coalition, talks with the EU are probably dead for the time being, and even in a more pro-European setup with the SDA and BF, it is very unlikely that they will go anywhere.
The core of the PP’s platform in this election was economic populism and soft nationalism. Some think that this is only the PP’s latest gimmick to win votes, but SDG does seem pretty honest and genuine. The main point of the PP’s platform, which the PP is setting as a precondition for any government, is the pledge to write off 20% of household loans/mortgages. This plank worked wonders for the PP in the election, but the party will have a very tough time actually living up to its voters’ expectations on that issue. Many economists doubt the foreign creditors will accept the PP’s “blackmail”, and even if the PP somehow did manage to get them to accept this deal, economists say that the plan would be an economic disaster for the country: either the banks would get rich again, or the consumers would have government money in their pockets – and this would lead to either inflation or another housing bubble. Many voters likely backed the PP because of this key promise, if it fails to deliver on it, it could probably face bleaker days in four years time. Many voters could be badly disappointed by the PP.
A lot of observers are cynical or pessimistic about a PP government. The blogger, quoted above, had this to say about the PP: “at the moment, the biggest political party in Iceland, is the good old Farmer’s Party, Fremskridtspartiet, the former hotbed of criminal corruption, criminal provinciality and criminal stupidity. And this fact of course, really makes you want to shout.”
If Bjarni Benediktsson fails to become Prime Minister, his days at the head of the party are probably counted. He would be the only IP leader in the party’s history who did not become Prime Minister. Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, very popular both within the IP and with the broader electorate, could be plotting Benediktsson’s ouster and her accession to the party’s leadership.
Iceland may be on the road to economic recovery, but Icelandic politics have not really “recovered” from the 2008 crisis and collapse yet. Icelandic politics, despite the appearances, remains in a state of flux in which few voters trust their politicians and the established political parties. The 2009 election was an exceptional election born out of exceptional circumstances. The 2013 election is probably not a return to “normality”, but another ‘deviating’ election from the pre-crisis norm. Will Iceland ever return, however, to the pre-crisis political system? Has the crisis irremediably changed the country’s politics for good?