Saturday, May 18, 2013

mandate to govern

I've heard a few comments recently that Christy Clark doesn't have a mandate to lead our province considering only 23% of the eligible voters chose her party in last week's BC election.  I'm not thrilled about it, but Christy Clark does indeed have what passes for a mandate to govern in our society and is not to blame for voter apathy, nor the fact that we use the "first-past-the-post" system. Our electoral system is designed to favour a party that can win the most seats, but it has never resulted in a provincial or federal government supported by even 50% of the eligible votes. It is probably fair to say (in light of some excellent feedback via twitter... see comments below), that the term mandate itself could be questioned, as can the extent to which our system is actually democratic vs institutional hegemony that cloaks itself with populist shows every few years.

Canada’s first election in 1867 was won by John A. Macdonald with 34.5% of the votes. Although only about a tenth of the population were on the electoral list, voter turnout was still 73%. This means that Macdonald governed with a mandate from 25% of the electorate and only about 3% of the total population.

The worst turnout in the early years was 62.9% in 1896, when Wilfred Laurier won with 41% of the vote compared to Tupper’s 48% -- less votes but more seats. Thus one of our greatest PMs came to power in second place on a mandate from 26% of the electorate or about 7% of the total population. This has happened a few times... such as the 1979 federal election (Joe Clark beat Trudeau), or BC in 1996 (Glen Clark beat Gordon Campbell) but in each case the winning party had less votes than their main opponent.

Borden, who led Canada into WWI, won the 1911 election narrowly against Laurier with 34% of the electorate behind him.

Mackenzie King lost his own seat and lost the election in 1925 with 39% of the votes (26% of the electorate) compared to Arthur Meighen’s 46% of the votes (31% of the electorate), but he still became PM with the support of the Progressives.

Our best federal turnout was in 1963, with 79.2% voting. Pearson beat Diefenbaker with 42% to 33% of the vote (or 33% to 26% of the electorate).

With the support of 31% of the electorate in 1980, Trudeau claimed a mandate that enabled him fight separatism and patriate the constitution.

Stephen Harper first came to power in 2006 with 23% of the electorate. He gained another minority mandate in 2008, where the turnout was our worst ever at 58.8%. He won with 22% of the electorate behind him.

As far as I can tell, the PMs with highest percentage of eligible voters were Borden in 1917 and Diefenbaker in 1958, both at 43% of the electorate (57% and 54% of the vote respectively). The "best mandate" for a BC premier in modern times was Gordon Campbell in 2001. No wonder Christy Clark felt emboldened as Education Minister to wreak havoc in 2002.

Just like the federal scene, provincial mandates to govern are also settled by a minority of the electorate, as seen in Figure 1.1 below (source: 2nd p. of appendix)

Note that the winning parties gained power with an average support of 32.2% of the eligible votes, roughly the same as the percent of people who did not vote during this period. The highest eligible voter support was Campbell’s first win in 2001 (41%), lowest was his last win in 2009 (23%), about the same as the result for Christy Clark last week, a slightly lower than the NDP's first win in BC (1972, 27%) and similar to the mandate given to John A. Macdonald in Canada’s first election (25%).

1 comment:

Thielmann said...

I had some great tweets from Tobey Steeves (@symphily) about this today -- I can always count on him to provide a substantive and philosophically structured critique. From twitter interactions May 19/13:

I don't disagree w/ the data in your analysis ( …), but see the Q of 'mandate' somewhat differently, @gthielmann.

@gthielmann As you hint, Canada's electoral system is problematic vis-a-vis political mandates - it isn't really organized to produce them.

@gthielmann Even so, political systems achieve legitimacy via consent of the governed - w/o this consent we don't have democracy.

@gthielmann Voting is one meaningful way of performing that consent, and when participation falls to 50% there is a question of legitimacy.

@gthielmann Recall that the US fought for its independence - in part - due to 'taxation w/o representation'. Applies to modern context.

@gthielmann That is, if there is taxation w/o representation - i.e., w/o the consent of the governed - we aren't talking about democracy.

@gthielmann Instead, if we are talking about government by consent of the few - not the demos - we should acknowledge it as hegemonic.

@gthielmann This nicely aligns w/ Chomsky's arguments re. 'manufacture of consent' as a vehicle for naturalizing hegemony - not democracy.

@gthielmann As a point of contrast, I'd highlight the fact that 'democracy' was imposed in Canada - there was never any urge to achieve it.

@gthielmann Democracy is a radical political project. Canada takes its political system from British monarchism - decidedly /not/ radical.

@gthielmann As such, I'd offer that it's really no surprise that a lack of consent by the governed is being spun as a political mandate.

@gthielmann And I would suggest a key awareness in moving forward is that the consent of the governed requires a majority - not a minority.