PEI Votes·Analysis

P.E.I. election: A 50-year tradition on the line

If Prince Edward Islanders are the traditional people many believe they are the results of the upcoming election are already a foregone conclusion.

History suggests Liberals will win, but trends may be changing

Over 50 years of P.E.I. elections the trends are strong, governments win three elections and then they lose. (CBC)

If Prince Edward Islanders are the traditional people many believe they are the results of the upcoming election are already a foregone conclusion.

Since the election of 1966 Islanders have handed the keys to government in an astonishingly regular pattern. Firstly, only the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have formed governments. Secondly, they win three elections, and then they lose. The only exception was 1978, when the Liberals eked out a bare 17 to 15 majority to win a fourth term.

This trend has held despite the vast waves of change that have rolled across the landscape: generations of political leaders, issues of life and death importance that have faded into history, even differences in how MLAs are elected.

In this coming election, it should particularly be noted that changing the premier in mid-term in the past also apparently had no impact on this pattern. This has happened four times: two of those premiers won the next election, and two lost.

If this history holds, the Liberals will win a third term.

The impact of first-past-the-post

UPEI historian Ed MacDonald believes the trend is connected to Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, in which a small change in the popular vote can lead to a huge change in in the number of seats in the legislature.

UPEI history professor Ed MacDonald sees increasingly volatility in coming elections on P.E.I. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

During the last government change, in 2007, the Progressive Conservative popular vote fell from 54 to 41 per cent, and the party lost 19 of its 23 seats. It can take some time for a party to recover from that kind of loss, said MacDonald.

"There has to be a process of renewal, and that can often take an election or two elections before the party kind of rebuilds its sense of optimism and does a rebuilding of leadership and also the rank and file," said Ed MacDonald.

In addition to the time it takes to rebuild from opposition, said MacDonald, three terms is enough time for a government to anger enough swing voters to turf them out.

Changing trends?

The trends on P.E.I. have been clear and they have been echoed across the Maritimes until recently.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick politics have not moved with the regularity of P.E.I. politics, with governments sometimes getting just one re-election and sometimes as many as four terms. Both provinces, however, have seen those patterns broken in the last two years.

Traditional voting patterns are changing across the Maritimes, says UPEI political science professor Don Desserud. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

A Nova Scotia NDP government was defeated after just one term in 2013, and a New Brunswick Progressive Conservative one-term government was sent to the opposition benches last year.

"The patterns of entrenched voting, which has been responsible for a very predictable result for political parties, that's moving away," said UPEI political scientist Don Desserud.

"People are not as dedicated to the parties that they supported before. They might be nominally supportive but there is not a passion for them."

MacDonald sees this pattern as well, and he thinks the roots of it may be in the rise of what he calls the rurban voter: people who live in rural areas but whose lives revolve around the cities.

"Many people now live in subdivisions or in houses on the outside of the urban areas and their work lives, social lives, cultural lives, are linked to the city," he said.

"Technically they're rural people, but they live within the orbit of the city. For all intents and purposes they're urban people."

These rurban voters have higher education levels than rural voters of the past, and are less attached to political parties for the traditional reasons, such as family attachment. These voters are more difficult to predict both in terms of how they will vote and whether they will vote at all.

It may be we are already seeing a change in the pattern. Government winning patterns have been regular even beyond three wins and you're out. The first term is a small majority, followed by a larger one. The pattern on the third victory is not so clear, but support for the government crashes in the fourth election.

The pattern of the recent Liberal government has been different. They won a large majority in 2007, 23 of 27 seats. Their share fell to 22 seats in 2011. This change fits with what both Desserud and MacDonald see as increased volatility in voting patterns.

Another wild card

In addition to the unpredictability of a new culture of rurban voters, immigration will potentially have a big impact on this election.

It takes four years for an immigrant to apply for citizenship, so for this election the immigrants who could potentially vote in this election arrived between 2007 and 2011. In that period Statistics Canada recorded the arrival of 7,406 immigrants on P.E.I., which is about five per cent of the total population of the Island. Their impact could be increased by their concentration in the Charlottetown area. The huge majority of them will be voting in the 10 districts surrounding the capital city.

These new voters have no historical pattern.

There is much to suggest that old patterns of P.E.I. politics are about to change, but it is also worth keeping in mind that upheavals from 1966 to 2011 have not yet disrupted the old ways.

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