Kathleen Wynne has publicly conceded she won’t be premier after Ontario residents go to the polls this Thursday. The unusual acknowledgement came with a plea from the premier to ask voters to elect enough of her Liberal candidates to ensure a minority NDP or Progressive Conservative government.
The move by Wynne was another unexpected development in a campaign that has had many surprises since it started a few weeks ago. And although the results of the election will be known Thursday, the people of Ontario may have to wait a while to know who will form what sort of government.
Clearly, if one party wins a majority of the seats, they will form the government, but polls to date suggest the results may not be that straightforward. The Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats are within the margin of error of a tie in popular vote, but the trailing Liberals could still have a significant impact on the final result.
A further complication, of course, is the fact that results will vary considerably from riding to riding.
Ridings in play
Since the last election, the boundaries of Ontario constituencies have been redrawn, so it’s not easy to translate past results into current predictions.
However, we can get a sense of the complexity of the situation when we realize 39 seats in the last election were won by a Liberal candidate with the NDP in third place. In those ridings, a collapse of the Liberal vote could result in the PCs winning the seat, even if much of the Liberal vote went to the NDP.
In addition, there were at least 11 seats last election where all three of the principal parties had enough votes that a small change could alter the order of how the parties finish this time around.
And there are seats where the disappearance of a sitting member (such as the NDP member Jagmeet Singh’s move to federal politics, the retirement of former PC leader Tim Hudak and the retirement of several Liberal cabinet members) may change the calculus for voters in those seats.
And to repeat — all the riding boundaries have changed. With the above caveats in mind, what can we say about where votes may go if people are leaving the Liberals?
Before the 1980s, many political scientists believed people’s associations with political parties were formed almost at birth — inherited from parents and reinforced by stable communities in which they lived.
But since then we have come to believe party affiliations, where they exist at all, are quite volatile. Communities change rapidly and even political parties change names, policies and campaign styles from year to year.
Knowing now that people can vote differently from election to election, we’ve become more interested in what people’s second-choice party is, assuming they have a first. That might give us some idea where they will move if they leave their preferred alternative.
Back in 1977 a colleague and I, conducting an Ontario voter survey, posed a question about second choices. People who told us they planned to vote for the NDP that year divided about half and half between the Liberals and Conservatives as their second choice; Conservative voters gave the Liberals their second choice by a two-to-one margin over the NDP, and Liberal voters gave their second choice to the PCs by about the same margin.
One could have concluded the NDP had very little likelihood of success in that circumstance, but 13 years later, in 1990, they formed the government. And I suspect the second choices of Ontario voters are very different now that Doug Ford, rather than Bill Davis, is leading the PCs.
That means it’s hard to say where Liberal voters will go in any particular riding if the party’s share of the vote declines as predicted. So a number of possible scenarios can be imagined.
Majority or minority government?
It’s clear the Liberals can’t recover enough to win a majority of the legislature’s seats, and given the concentration of the NDP vote in particular areas, it would also be surprising as well if the New Democrats won a majority. (Of course, we were surprised in 1990 when the NDP captured a solid majority with under 39 per cent of the popular vote.) If there is a majority government, it seems most likely it will be Conservative.
The possibilities for minority government are much more numerous. Suppose the PCs win a plurality of seats, but not a majority. They would then have a legitimate claim that Ontario’s lieutenant governor should invite Ford to form a government.
Wynne will still be premier until a new government is sworn in. If her party was to make a late surge and hold on to some of its seats, she could ask that the legislature be called into session and could attempt to make an agreement with the NDP (or less likely, the PCs) to hold onto office.
NDP got no credit after coalition
If she winds up in third place in terms of seats however, her claim to continued power would be significantly weaker. The closest (though not perfect) analogy is found after the election of 1985 when the PCs, having lost a majority, asked for the legislature’s confidence in the hopes of continuing to govern.
They had managed minority governments from 1975 to 1981, and might have hoped to do so again. However, David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP agreed to withhold confidence from the PC government.
They settled on an accord by which the NDP would agree not to cast non-confidence votes against the Liberal government, headed by Peterson, for two years in return for the Liberals’ agreeing to pursue an agenda on which the two parties could agree.
At the end of the two years, the Liberals coasted to a sizeable majority, leaving the NDP to wonder why they got no credit for the accomplishments of the accord.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has expressly ruled out a coalition with the Liberals, though that position makes sense if you think you can get a majority, but less sense if it means Ford would consequently become premier.
If the NDP holds a plurality of seats, or even the second-largest number of seats, a prudent strategy might well be to seek some sort of agreement from the Liberals (as an agreement with the PCs seems very unlikely). The Liberals may resist such a call, however, remembering the NDP’s fate following the 1985-1987 coalition government, and then another election could come sooner than we think.