Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Elections Matter: The Past, The Present, The Future

Elections are in the news here and there and everywhere.

To the past, a previous election from weeks ago is still making the news because it just only had gotten resolved about 50 minutes ago in real-time (I was about to write something else and blamm-o, deal got done).  I speak of the Israel election:

With just an hour to spare before a deadline, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Wednesday that he has succeeded in forming a coalition government.
According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu came to an agreement with the final party required for a coalition, the right-wing Jewish Home party, at 10:30 p.m. local time...
...Netanyahu had six weeks to form a government after the March 17 elections in which his Likud party won 30 seats. They beat his main rival, Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog, who won 24 seats. Netanyahu now has one week to present his coalition and Cabinet to the Knesset.
Netanyahu's government is likely to be a right-wing government with 61 seats out of a 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the bare minimum to form a coalition.
One of his primary coalition partners, Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced in recent days that he was leaving the coalition and resigning his post as foreign minister, which would cut Netanyahu's coalition from a strong 67 seats to a weak 61 seats...

Coalitions matter in Israel and other nations because the proportional voting system combined with their parliamentary form of government means multiple parties spread across a finite voting populace: creating several large parties with pluralities but not majorities, and giving the smaller parties chances to form coalitions and extort prizes and favors.

This means the strength of the prime minister in a coalition majority depends entirely on how many parties he can pull together to form enough votes to avoid a government collapse.  As of now, Netanyahu is about one vote away from a defection on any key legislation into a tie vote, and two defections away from a failed vote.  I'm not entirely sure if a single failed vote would be construed as a no-confidence that could collapse the entire coalition and force a new election, but I think I've seen that happen before... a lot... with Italy's government.

Netanyahu may well be on the hardest tight-rope walk ever of his long - and questionably corrupt - prime ministerial career.  He's formed a hard-right coalition, but each party is led by a factionalist some of whom aren't entirely fond of Netanyahu on a personal level.  He has to placate some factions more than before to keep them happy... but doing so risks the possibility of outraging the rest of the nation and alienating one of the more centrist coalition members into quitting the group.

That election may be in the past, but the results of it - close and as far from a solid majority as any government would want - will haunt Netanyahu's current coaltion for the next year, if it even lasts that long.

It helps an election if the results are clear-cut and obvious.  Like the one that just happened in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The news about it since last night has sent shockwaves across Canada and even into the U.S.  Not because of the results - polling ahead of time showed the New Democratic Party was going to win over the once-controlling Tories/Progressive Conservatives - but because of the crushing decisiveness of the results and how it signaled leadership change to a region that hadn't switched hands in over 40 years:

The NDP, a party that had never won more than 16 seats, captured more than 50 to secure a majority in the 87-seat legislature.
The Wildrose party took second place and will form the official Opposition, while Prentice and his battered PCs were relegated to third.
It was a crushing defeat for the Tories, who had steered the ship of state since 1971—longer than any party anywhere in the country...
...(Outgoing leader Jim Prentice) took over a party in September that had been stung by scandals under former premier Alison Redford. Legislature members and the premier were using government planes for party business and Redford ordered that a penthouse apartment be built for herself on top of a renovated government building.
The party had also failed to build promised schools and was criticized for lavish salaries and severance payouts to political staff and government executives...

While the real causes of the switch between the conservative PC party and the more liberal-labour NDC are many, it basically breaks down to one thing: the Progressive Conservatives had been in office too long (over 40 years!), took their hold on power for granted, did little to keep the populace happy, got corrupted, and got bent.  That corrupt attitude and failure to respond to the electorate shows in the shocking fortunes of the Wildrose party - a more hard-core conservative group - that won second place.  People were so fed up with the Conservatives that they fled to the more wingnut party out of spite.

Still, this is a huge seismic shift in electoral favor.  Alberta had long been one of the more conservative provinces (not state, they ain't like up Oop North) in all of Canada.  When the Red State/Blue State divide in the United States back in 2004 created homogeneous blocks of Conservative/Liberal zones, the mapmakers of the so-called Jesusland would add Alberta as part of that Red State empire (with the Blue States and the rest of Canada labels the United States of Canada).

You have to admit, having one party in control of anything - a state or province, the nation as a whole - for more than two decades is pushing the limits of effective and responsive leadership.  Parties that stay in power calcify, get lazy, get to thinking nothing can topple them, get to thinking they know what they're doing even if they keep repeating the same mistakes.  Fresh ideas become fewer, needed reforms less likely as they butt against the status quo.  Not to say that turnover for the sake of turnover is good - that way leads to losing too many people who do know what they're doing, and disrupts any long-term fixing of problems - but if the same clowns have been in power for more than four decades, I guarantee you things have gotten sloppy and stupid.

This is still a big deal.  This is akin to a state like South Carolina - long a home of conservative ideology regardless of which party (Democrats before 1964, Republicans after 1972) ran it - suddenly voting out every Confederate flag-waver and replacing them with pro-choice civil rights advocates who all attend Unitarian services (in short, beyond impossible).  The seating went for 16 for the New Democrats all the way up to 50 out of 87 seats: about 20 percent up to 60 percent, about as solid a majority as the Republicans here in Congress controlling the House.

Alberta's election has long-term implications.  The reigning national Conservatives long counted on Alberta as their base of support: if they've lost that many voters this year, it's not likely those voters will turn around and vote for them in the national elections this autumn.  And this election has ramifications for other future elections, not just for who controls Ottawa.

It's not entirely clear if what happened in Alberta will affect the major partner of the British Commonwealth, but the United Kingdom elections that are happening tomorrow (or today depending on your time zone, a big hello to any of the UK readers I get if any) may see some voters inspired by the conservative kick-out by their Canadian cousins.

The UK Parliament is up for vote for the House of Commons, and right now the whole thing is a literal dead heat with an unlikely majority.

The three major parties - conservative Tories, socialist Labour, liberal Democrats (no relation) - are in somewhat bad shape.  The Conservatives under Cameron have had a messy, destructive five years of coalition rule: their austerity measures of social spending cuts and tax hikes on middle-income people hurt their economy.  The Liberals under Clegg made the mistake of selling their collective souls to the conservatives to become part of a coalition, and got caught defending bad conservative policies that hurt their own standing and weakened them for this cycle.  Labour is being touted as the least evil of the three now - which is telling you something - but are led by a bland figure in Miliband whose lack of charisma hurt the national campaign, while the party itself still has not recovered its reputation after the disastrous end of the Blair/Gordon years.

The likelihood of another coalition government gets scarier when you factor in the other once-smaller "third" parties that are more wingnut than the major parties.  In particular, the rise of what's known as UKIP, which was polling at a popularity percentage of 13 percent.  Try to picture it this way, America: UKIP is anti-EU (which for British politics isn't too crazy actually), anti-regulation (libertarian/Randian), anti-Arab (neocon hater wannabes), anti-immigrant (uh-oh), racist (hoo-boy)... Lemme put it another way, America: picture the Klu Klux Klan with 13 percent of the voting base and you've got an idea what the UKIP represents.

Here's the thing: if the Conservatives win just enough over Labour but not enough for its own majority, and the UKIP is sitting there with just enough seats to form a coalition... yeah, be afraid America, our best international ally just went Teabagger on us.  The irony of it may be lost in the trans-Atlantic transition...

There's also the possibility that if Labour wins just a few seats over Conservatives but not enough to control, they'd have to see about forming a coalition with the Dems (no relation), if Clegg's party is able to hold enough seats of their own.  It's more likely Labour could form a coalition with the Scottish National Party, which is poised to clean up most of Scotland's seating in Parliament... but which Cameron claims is an "illegitimate" move, leading to an international crisis on a scale equal to Election 2000.

Part of me is wondering if the British voters paid attention to Alberta: having seen an ineffective conservative government get ousted by the voters had to have given them the same idea among the non-affiliated voters.  It's a question if it happened too soon or if it happened at exactly the right time for it to have an effect in Great Britain itself...

I mentioned before how Alberta's election can affect the national Canadian elections set for October.  The potential downturn in support for the national Conservatives does not yet translate into gains for the other major factions, but the New Democrats have to be energized by their win here to motivate turnout everywhere else - where more liberal/left-of-center voters reside.  It may yet shock the national Conservatives into moderating their message rather than react more radical (although that's unlikely: the hard-core members are too set in their ways by now).

And even though Alberta's election was only in Canada, it has an effect across the border here in the United States.  The New Dems campaigned on a strong pro-environment anti-oil platform.  The incoming leader, Rachel Notley, promised to end the aggressive push for the controversial Keystone pipeline (calling it now an American problem, not Canada's).  That she won a decisive majority in what had been a province overly reliant on the energy corporations means that the climate change argument is a winning one even in pro-oil markets.  I would think the Koch Brothers and other energy conglomerates pushing the Climate Denial are reconsidering their options.  ...Nah, the Teabagger faction here in the U.S. is too far gone...

But there are other lessons to learn here for American politics gearing up for the major 2016 Presidential elections (with key Senate races as well).  First off, the conservative message of the last forty years - deregulate, cut taxes, cut social spending, worship the rich - is not as potent as it was under the Age of Reagan.  Voters who lived for decades in a free-market, far right region like Alberta have gotten sick of it and finally tuned out.

We're about due to see the same thing here in the U.S.: the same amount of decades of massive tax cuts and diminishing social services are starting to adversely affect places like Kansas and other Red States.  Decades of unchanging political leadership like here in Florida are starting to show signs not only of corruption but also complacency and ineptitude, and worse tuning out on the needs of the local voters crying for leadership on health care and climate change.

There's an irony here because the conservative Republicans are charging headlong into the Presidential race on the belief that they are due for taking back the White House.  People are wondering why so many Far Right GOP'ers are putting their names up for consideration this primary season need to consider the myth of the Pendulum Swing: the idea (ignoring actual history) that the White House tends to swing back and forth from one party to another.  That after a two-term Presidency, the party in opposition is poised to take over the Presidency for their own two terms.

As I noted, that ignores actual history.  External factors - weak national parties leading to constant one-termers that dominated much of the mid-19th Century, Presidents dying in office leaving weak replacement Veeps in charge, ongoing national moods such as the post-Civil War "Bloody Shirt" dominance by Republicans (1861 to 1912, barring exceptions) and post-Depression dominance by Democrats between 1932 to 1968 (with Ike the exception) - have more to do with which party controls the Presidency.

What really matters is performance in the White House: if one party does well, the voting electorate will continue to back that party until things fall apart for it, much in the way 40-plus years control of Alberta fell apart for the Conservatives.  The reasons Bush the Lesser won after the Bill Clinton two-terms had more to do with Al Gore avoiding his campaign to link to the still-popular Clinton, as well as a broken voting system in Florida that threw the results into chaos.  The reason Obama won in 2008 after two terms of Bush the Lesser had a lot to do with the disasters of the Bush II administration - collapsed economy, bad wars, failed policies.  Nixon won in 1968 because LBJ's disastrous administration led to the end of the New Deal era that carried over through the FDR, Truman, and Kennedy administrations (and also through the Eisenhower Republican tenure, which is telling).

In all other cases, a popular Presidency leads to the successor candidates gaining their own terms.  Jefferson begat Madison who begat Monroe (who benefited from an era where the opposition party died away) who begat Adams... who flopped as President.  Jackson led to Van Buren... who flopped, and at this point the one-terms moved into play as the regional factions divided the nation (and the dominant Democratic party) up towards the Civil War.  The alienation of the Democrats post-war pretty much gave Republicans control of the White House from Grant to Hayes to Garfield to Arthur... and that was with Grant's administration being one of the most corrupt in political history and with Hayes honestly losing but eking out a corrupt deal due to the Republicans wielding enough political clout to pull it off.  Cleveland becomes the Democratic hiccup between Arthur (Harrison kinda shouldn't count) and McKinley, who begat Teddy on his own successful two-terms who begat Taft (broken up by Wilson due to the GOP schism between Teddy and Taft) leading to Harding and Coolidge and Hoover... at which point the Great Depression shatters Republican control for the next 40 years...

The lesson here is: successful and popular Presidency continues the control of the White House to that President's party.  It's one of the reasons why Republicans still scream about Obama being a failure when he's not, and it's one of the reasons they need to be afraid of the fact Obama is still more popular than they are.

Hell, Hillary is still more popular than the Republicans.  This is not at all like Alberta, or Israel, or the UK, where the leadership's popularity took collective hits and weakened their parties.  Israel is one bad vote away from collapse: who knows how the UK elections will go.

We need to see how the British elections hold up tomorrow... I mean today... I mean, ah damn you Greenwich Mean Time!

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

Whenever I see encouraging election results, part of me wants to think that maybe people are finally coming to their senses, then I take a deep breath and remember that they already are at their senses, but their senses don't see the world the same way I do. That said, remembering history aloud is very important, given the attempts occurring to rewrite it and leave out all of the inconvenient parts...

-Doug in Oakland