A Green victory in P.E.I.’s election would be historic, but it is far from certain

A Green victory in P.E.I.’s election would be historic, but it is far from certain
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The provincial election in P.E.I. today has gained national attention because of the chance that it could yield the first Green government in Canadian history, but two experts are cautioning that the result is far from certain.

The Greens have strong top-line polling numbers — currently putting them in majority government territory — and an extremely popular leader in Peter Bevan-Baker. But there’s a certain lack of clarity in where those Green votes are, and whether they will actually materialize, said Don Desserud, a professor in political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

“It’s very hard to see where exactly those votes will go. Are they concentrated in one or two ridings in Charlottetown or Summerside, or are they elsewhere? That’s what we don’t know,” Desserud said.

The biggest reason for uncertainty, Desserud said, is that polls in the country’s least populous province can have high margins of error when you drill down to the county or riding level.

In a close three-way race that features the Greens, the Conservatives under Dennis King, and the incumbent Liberals led by Premier Wade MacLauchlan, everything turns on how exactly the votes split in each of the province’s 27 ridings.

Interestingly, polling shows that the Greens might be set to make “serious inroads” in rural P.E.I., Desserud said. Partly, this is due to a moderation and shift in the party’s policies away from more extreme environmental and animal rights activists, the professor explained.

That shift, and the Greens’ explosive rise, began when Bevan-Baker won the party’s first seat in the 2015 election. Prior to Bevan-Baker’s breakthrough, the Greens had languished in the low single-digits of support, earning just 4.4 per cent of the popular vote in 2011.

If Bevan-Baker’s personal victory in 2015 was the starting point, the referendum on electoral reform the following year really kicked off the incredible climb in the polls that the Greens have pulled off.

The referendum ended with a majority in favour of a mixed-member proportional system, but the governing Liberals decided not to move forward with reform and instead hold another referendum. Premier MacLauchlan cited low voter turnout in 2016 as the reason for delay: just 36.5 per cent in a province that often sees 80 per cent of Islanders vote in general elections.

Bevan-Baker built that decision into a narrative of an out-of-touch Liberal government, according to Desserud.

“(Bevan-Baker) was able to position himself and his party as one that would be responsive,” he said.

The Greens followed that up with the election of Hannah Bell as their second MLA in a 2017 by-election. Bell was an established entrepreneur and the founder of the P.E.I. Business Woman’s Association, and her choice to run with the Greens gave the party economic bona fides, Desserud said.

But in 2019 it is Bevan-Baker’s personal popularity that has carried the Greens along in a campaign that has been remarkably collegial.

“If the Green Party had 26 other candidates like Peter Bevan-Baker, they would win in a landslide tomorrow” said Peter McKenna, also a professor of political science at UPEI. “But they don’t.”

McKenna is unconvinced that voters will turn out for the Greens in enough force in enough places, saying it would be a “political miracle” if the party formed a majority government. At the same time, he cautioned against any strong prediction.

“It’s just one of those elections,” McKenna said. “Oftentimes I’m able to read the tea leaves and make a prediction. But not this one.”

Still, it seems the Greens are relying on Bevan-Baker’s personal popularity, which is higher than the other provincial leaders and higher than his own party’s approval, to eke out a win.

“It’s unclear in my view whether he has sufficient coattails to carry in a number of Green MLAs,” McKenna said.

“It could be that the Greens are one election away from forming government, but I don’t think it’s 2019,” McKenna continued.

Still, there appears to be a desire for change on the Island after nearly 12 years of Liberal rule.

“I think that Islanders are hungry, and there’s a huge desire for change and appetite for something different on the Island,” McKenna said. But that movement for change has resulted in a close three-way race where uncertainty over the outcome is extremely high.

Most recently, the tragic death of a Green party candidate, Josh Underhay, has cast a pall over the campaign.

“(Underhay) was a star candidate for the Green Party and very well-liked and very well-respected,” Desserud said.

“Voters, I think, are going to the polls with a heavy heart,” McKenna added. Elections PEI has delayed the result in that riding, Charlottetown–Hillsborough Park, and a by-election will be held sometime in the next few months which, depending on how tomorrow goes, may be a make-or-break moment.

“Given how close this race is going to be, this could be the by-election that decides which party gets to stay in power or go into power,” Desserud said.

There’s also the matter of the (now third) referendum on electoral reform, which is being run parallel to the provincial campaign. All of the four leaders have said they will honour the results, meaning a successful “Yes” vote will lead eventually to the implementation of a mixed-member proportional system.

But there has been very little conversation around the referendum, McKenna notes, perhaps because no party wants to scare anyone off by coming out too strongly in favour. That’s particularly notable when it comes to the Greens, he said, because they attacked the government so strongly for not honouring the results of the past referendum, and electoral reform is a “bread-and-butter issue” for many third parties.
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