PEI·Analysis

Why P.E.I.'s predictable politics are so unpredictable this time

Since 1966, politics on P.E.I. have moved with astonishing regularity, but that may be set to change.

'This is going to be one of the most fascinating elections in P.E.I. history'

Prince Edward Islanders will decide on a new government April 23. (CBC)

Since 1966 politics on P.E.I. have moved with astonishing regularity, but that may be set to change.

For more than 50 years the trend has been three elections and you're out — the Liberals will win three, and then the Progressive Conservatives will win three.

The one exception was 1978, when the Liberals won a bare majority for a fourth term that lasted just one year. Otherwise, it seems as if the two parties have simply had to wait their turn.

If this trend holds, the Liberals — now seeking a fourth term — are done, and the Tories can start making plans to form a government now.

Or not.

"Although there has been a pattern, there's nothing that says patterns have to continue," says UPEI historian Ed MacDonald.

For close to a year, neither the Liberals nor the Progressive Conservatives have been leading in the polls — that distinction has gone to the Green Party.

"What's curious about this election is that Prince Edward Island may be moving into a new era," said MacDonald.

'The old tropes don't have to hold,' says Ed MacDonald. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

"The continuing strength in the polls of the Green Party suggests that we're in a new landscape. The old tropes don't have to hold."

UPEI political scientist Don Desserud agrees there is potential for a major shakeup.

"This is going to be one of the most fascinating elections in P.E.I. history," said Desserud.

"We have three viable parties. Any one of those viable parties can win, and we have a very strong leader of the NDP [Joe Byrne] who can surprise people with his own showing."

Built-in unpredictability

One of the things that makes this election so interesting, and difficult to call, is the first-past-the-post system the province uses for electing MLAs.

A small shift: a few votes here, a few votes there.— Don Desserud

If, for example, we assume roughly equal support for the top three parties, under a proportional representation system we could assume each party would get about one third of the seats.

Under first-past-the-post it's not that simple.

"You can do extremely well, and be a close second in a lot of ridings, but not see any seats because you're only second," said Desserud.

Votes don't always translate to seats

In first-past-the-post what really counts is how many districts you win, not how many votes. An unfortunate distribution of the votes you earn, can make a huge difference in the number of seats you get.

The three-way race is very difficult to predict, says Don Desserud. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

One of the best examples of this in Canadian history is the 1993 federal election. In that year Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Quebecois became the Official Opposition, winning 54 seats with 13.5 per cent of the popular vote. Kim Campbell's Progressive Conservatives gathered more votes, 16 per cent, but won just two seats.

This makes three-way races very difficult to call. With an even distribution of votes you could get an even distribution of seats, or you could get a majority government for one party with another party virtually shut out.

"It's unpredictable because [it takes] a small shift: a few votes here, a few votes there," said Desserud.

"Some of those small shifts can be as much as people not getting out to the poll because of things that happen on that day. The weather might turn out to be the most important factor in the next election."

How strong are the Greens?

While the Green Party under Peter Bevan-Baker shows strength in the polls, that strength is untested in an election.

Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker has been polling as the Island's most popular leader, and needs to find a way to convert that into a win for his party. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Polling numbers are high enough for the Green Party to form the next Island government, but no Green Party has ever formed an Opposition in Canada, much less a government. Elected Green representatives are a relatively new phenomenon. Are Islanders ready to take such a big step?

Desserud is cautious in assessing how firm the party's support is.

"I still think that Prince Edward Island — like the other Maritime provinces, frankly — has a small-c conservative voting base," he said.

"What I mean by that is that the voting population are reluctant to embrace radical change, that they see the old parties as the standbys. There's something comforting about those parties, and when push comes to shove they tend to revert back to their old voting habits.

Islanders 'willing to break norms'

MacDonald counters that analysts should be cautious about underestimating Islanders' propensity to adopt major change.

The Green Party is focusing its campaign on meeting people on the doorstep. (Isabella Zavarise/CBC)

"We're the first ones to elect a woman to be our premier, the first ones to elect a premier who wasn't of European descent, so in surprising ways we are willing to break norms," he said.

MacDonald believes that may be because the province is so small, and people can feel so close to politicians.

"There could be a breakthrough on Prince Edward Island not because we're Green and the rest of the country isn't, but because we like the cut of the jib of the leader of the Green Party," he said.

Can the PCs challenge?

With five leaders since the last election, it has been a difficult time for the Progressive Conservatives, noted Desserud. Dennis King took charge of the party less than two months ago.

Dennis King became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party on Feb. 9. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"[The Progressive Conservatives] have squandered opportunities over the last four years, in fact over the last eight years, to be a much more effective opposition," said Desserud.

"Because of the problems they've had with the leadership they haven't been able to play that role. But the question now is whether [voters] are going to believe in the new leader and believe in the team, that they are the logical alternative."

MacDonald, while recognizing the potential for the dramatic in Islanders, doesn't think their affinity for the comfortable should be underestimated either.

The Progressive Conservatives need to convince people they are ready to govern. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"Even if the leader is untested and untried, because the Conservatives have been around for such a long time there's a perception that they're capable of running a government if they're elected," he said.

"People, I think, tend to trust the brand on P.E.I. So, the Conservative brand."

Can the Liberals survive?

The Liberals are fighting against history for a fourth term.

Wade MacLauchlan dropped the writ on March 26. (Brian McInnis/The Canadian Press)

The economy is strong — an important measure for any government seeking re-election — but Wade MacLauchlan and his Liberals do not seem to be getting a lot of credit for that.

MacDonald said that creates a conundrum for Liberal strategists.

"The biggest strategic weapon that the Liberals have is that their government is experienced and it's running a tight ship and the leaders of the other three parties are newbies," he said.

"But you can't compare them to the leader of the Liberal Party, if you're a strategist for the Liberal Party, because your leader has been so unpopular in the polls."

'A lot can happen'

The emergence of a third party could be helpful to the Liberals by splitting the anti-government vote and allowing the Liberals to come up the middle.

Liberal strategist face a challenge with how to sell their party and leader. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

With three parties running this close in a first-past-the-post system, Desserud said the election is really too close to call.

"Campaigns matter," said Desserud.

"A lot can happen even in a short campaign that will change people's minds."

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About the Author

Kevin Yarr is the early morning web journalist at CBC P.E.I. You can reach him at kevin.yarr@cbc.ca.

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