A minority government. A possible coalition government. Are these actually serious prospects following the upcoming Prince Edward Island election? And it all may come to pass before electoral reform or proportional representation (PR) could come into play – depending, of course, on the outcome of a referendum attached to the next provincial vote.
A poll released this week suggests a tight three-way race is almost a certainty between the Liberals, Greens and Progressive Conservatives. Such a scenario would have been almost unthinkable even three short years ago, before Green party leader Peter Bevan-Baker’s dramatic breakthrough in the May 2015 election.
The Greens then captured a byelection in Charlottetown and their polling numbers have climbed steadily ever since. P.E.I. politics, virtually unchanged for a century, is spinning out of control.
PR always found a supportive home with third parties, such as the NDP and then the Greens, as they struggled to have their voice heard in the provincial legislature. Electoral reform also had some general appeal as a way to avoid recurring, huge majorities for the Liberals and PCs which switched governments every two or three elections. If there was some PR formula that would help balance the legislature between Liberals and Tories, that would be ‘somewhat OK.’
Now the political scene seems to be changing radically, as borne out by a string of successive polls. The Liberals have dropped, the Greens have surged and the PCs are returning to their traditional numbers. This week’s poll by MQO Research suggests that three political parties in P.E.I. are almost neck and neck - with the Liberals and the Green Party virtually tied in the lead and the PCs within striking distance. The numbers support the last poll conducted by Corporate Research Associates.
The margin of error means that any of three front-runners could actually be ahead. Analysts suggest the Green strength is coming at the expense of the Liberals and especially the NDP, and from among younger voters.
Besides the tight three-way battle at the top, another surprise from the MQO poll is the huge number of undecided voters - 34 per cent. Whoever can successfully attract those independent votes will win the next election.
The close polls mean that each party must attract quality candidates to grab voters’ attention and support. Leaders will be challenged to offer an appealing vison for the next four years. The electorate is getting younger, is better educated and old loyalties are falling away. More voters will make decisions based on quality of candidates, leader and party.
A close three-way race also brings another dynamic into play. If the electorate sees that a minority or coalition government is likely – which keeps government more accountable and forces parties to co-operate – then key arguments in support of PR may fade, affecting the outcome of the referendum.
At this point, it’s safe to suggest that the next election may simply be too close to call - among three parties. It’s a prediction few Islanders thought they would ever hear in their lifetime.