Presidentialization in Toronto

A dimension of comparison that scholars of political parties have not paid enough attention to–and that means me, too–is the presence and impact of direct election of big-city mayors in countries that are parliamentary at higher levels of government (national, state/provincial, etc.).

This week’s election of the mayor of Toronto is a case in point. With direct election, we see some of the same dynamics of “presidentialization” at the local level that David Samuels and I find for national-level presidential politics in Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers.

The election results show a victory by Rob Ford, with 47% in a multi-candidate field.

Like many a presidential candidate, he won by emphasizing himself, personally, as an agent of change. And even though he has served on the city council, he is an “outsider” in the sense of not having allies, as the Globe and Mail commented the day after the election:

Before he ran for mayor, Mr. Ford was an isolated city councillor who often failed to understand the issues he was ranting about at city council. As a candidate, he ran on a series of simplistic slogans that say nothing about the real problems of a grown-up city.

Certainly, not the sort of leader who could become “PM” of the city, were the city to have a parliamentary system like the province of Ontario or Canada at the federal level.

The election represents “a wave of voter anger” and saw a record number of new faces elected to the city council. However, none of them are part of a party or team elected specifically to support Ford. Indeed, Ford comes into office with what the Globe and Mail calls “an aggressive agenda of cost-cutting but also a proposal to slice council in half.” One doubts the council will cheer that idea.

The election is by first-past-the-post, and it had many of the classic dynamics of FPTP in a multi-candidate field. The second-place candidate, George Smitherman, had 35.6%, and Joe Pantalone was third with 11.7%. The fourth candidate, Rocco Rossi, dropped out of the campaign, saying:

Despite my efforts to focus this race around issues and ideas that I feel matter, it has become clear that the majority of Torontonians have parked their support with one of two candidates: Mr. Smitherman or Mr. Ford.

There were various calls for Pantalone, a long-time city “insider,” to do the same. He was backed by the New Democratic Party, although evidently not with much effect.

All federal MPs from Toronto are currently Liberal or NDP. Yet the voters of the city have taken advantage of the direct election to choose a right-wing mayor.

With direct election, the process of selecting the mayor of Toronto could hardly be more different than the selection of the premier of the province or the PM of Canada. The federal parties may be “taking notes” on the Ford campaign, but the lessons will go only so far, given that the differences in executive type that structure their campaigns.

Some other parliamentary democracies also have directly elected mayors of large cities, including Japan and the U.K. There may well be a literature about this “presidentialism embedded in parliamentarism” that I have missed.

10 thoughts on “Presidentialization in Toronto

  1. > “Some other parliamentary democracies also have directly elected mayors of large cities, including Japan and the UK”

    Brisbane. (Also the City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne but, like the City of London, these are micro-municipalities. Whereas Brisbane is the – IIRC – fifth or sixth largest government jurisdiction, in population and budget, in Australia).

  2. What would be the initial theoretical expectations (besides campaigning as outsiders?). The most obvious is that the electoral coalition for the mayor may differ from the coalition for the legislative slate representing the city (this may be true in mayor races in presidential systems as well, right?). The other that may be worth thinking about is that mayors may have different career paths than do legislative candidates for the same reason of being outsiders.

    Sounds like some UCSD student has a project ahead of them…

  3. I find it intriguing that use of single-seat FPTP for legislative bodies, although (pace Mungo MacCallum) declining around the world, still looks positively widespread compared to the extremely rare use of FPTP to elect executive officials (other than (i) US State-level offices and (ii) the Presidents of a few third-world countries – Philippines, Nigeria, Taiwan).

    That is, even polities that are relaxed about electing MPs or CongressReps by single-seat plurality seem to baulk at using the same system to elect their mayor, governor or president. Either they use an absolute-majority rule (eg, run-offs; London’s two-preference system) or they interpose some device that makes it look as if the plurality winner got a majority at some stage (the US Electoral College – formerly copied by Argentina; or the former Chilean rule that Congress decides between the top two candidates if neither gets 50%)*, or they prefer to have their chief executive chosen by (absolute majority vote of) the legislative body.

    *I recall one British small-c conservative writer – possibly Lord Hailsham, it was years ago – recoiling in horror at the idea of of a Republic of Britain with a directly-elected President. Why, this could mean a head of state, or even a head of government, elected on only 40% or 45% of the vote! The same author praised FPTP in the House of Commons for producing “strong government” – ie, a Prime Minister elected on 42-44% of the vote.

    I wouldn’t completely satirise this position, incongruent though it seems to me, sonce there are at least two potentially relevant differences.

    First, an executive President is more powerful than a Prime Minister. Mrs Thatcher won with 42-44%, true, but didn’t get two fixed five-year terms. She could be, and in the end was, recallable by her own parliamentary majority. One Brisbane City Councillor I know, who has served under both Council-elected and directly-elected Lord Mayors, prefers the former because it keeps Hizzoner more accountable to the wider party. Shugartism-101 in action…

    Second, even with SMD FPTP, a legislative body will be less disproportional than a completely winner-take-all chief executive election. Also, a large proportion of districts will be safe for one or another party, so that many MPs will poll 50% of the vote or more. By contrast, a nation, a State or even a large city is going to, statistically, come much closer to the “50-50 nation” model, so that a direct election with multiple candidates is almost certain to deliver plurality victories, many only because of a split vote, in most elections. If there is only one President/ Governor/ Mayor, and if 55% or 60% voted against her or him, the situation may appear less legitimate than if you have 300 or 400 or 600 legislators who represent 55% of those who voted (ideally, of course, if PR were used they would represent 90-95% of those who voted, but 55% is better than 40-45%), and where (eg) if you’re a left-wing Labour voter in a Tory district, you can still feel yourself to be “virtually represented” in the Commons, to some extent, because Tony Benn sits for another constituency.

  4. “First, an executive President is more powerful than a Prime Minister. Mrs Thatcher won with 42-44%, true, but didn’t get two fixed five-year terms. She could be, and in the end was, recallable by her own parliamentary majority.”

    I think you just answered your own question.

    Also with the second point. With an executive officer, one party will get 100% every time. There is no chance of coalition politics or oppositions like in the legislature, with something like the US presidency or a state governor one party, in fact one person, will always get 100%.

    Incidentally, I think this is the key to understanding why the US has such an extreme two party system. Government jobs and contracts are handed out by directly elected executives at all levels, and its all or nothing in terms of holding power at that level. A political power can only be taken seriously if it is strong enough to elect a directly elected executive in this system, so there is no room for more than two parties.

  5. I would seriously contest that a president always has more power than a prime minister, even though I accept Ed’s point about the making of contracts and appointments. Westminster prime ministers get to make contracts and appointments at will and their control of the lower house ensures that legislative review of their contracts and appointments is limited. They also get to make wars and treaties without legislative confirmation. In Westminster systems without an independently-elected upper house, legislative review of the prime minister’s actions is effectively nil.

    Even the minority government in Australia is free to make wars, treaties, appointments and contracts at will, and it was regarded as a major innovation, for the confidence and supply agreements with the independents and Greens, to demand the parliament debate the Afghanistan involvement for the first time. One journalist, Glenn Milne, wrote that the parliamentary debate was a bad idea because it would send the wrong message to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.

    At least here, the prime minister would seem to have powers no president could dream of.

  6. Alan, tell me about it. I’ve spent most of my life in Qld.

    I’ll put it another way: A PM has a greater quantum of power to act unilaterally without approval (prior or even subsequent) from the legislature (upper or even lower house). But, at the same time, s/he is constantly removable. This is a real safeguard. That once-all-conquering PMs like Hawke, Thatcher, Rudd, and Bjelke-Petersen were forced out by their own party (and Blair basically jumped before he was pushed) leaves a smaller remainder (so to speak) of unaccountable power. A PM is accountable to someone – the party, if not the legislature as a corporate body.

    Whereas a president has less legal power overall, but a larger proportion of it can be exercised unilaterally, without anyone else’s approval. (Even requiring Senate approval for appointments and treaties can be bypassed to some degree by end-runs such as executive agreements and recess appointments.)

    Put yet another way: A PM can do more things, but can be more easily removed for the things s/he does do. A President can do fewer things, but has a something like 60% likelihood of serving eight years – no more, no less – regardless of what s/he does. Bush was president until 20/1/08 (sorry, 1/20/08 – that wasn’t a calendar reform) regardless of whether his action on Iraq and Katrina were wildly popular or deeply unpopular.

    Put yet ANOTHER way… either George Winterton in “Monarchy to Republic”, or Godfrey Hodgson in “All Things to All Men” (both books well worth reading, if you haven’t already) observe that a US President has too much power over the executive branch but too little influence over the legislative branch.

    Ed, I’d query your statement in that many US States deliberately split the executive into separate, legally coequal elective offices. Michael Lind claims that one reason for this was a 19th-century desire to promote power-sharing (in an era before disciplined parties and PR were common). Lind cites Texas as an example, where the Lieut Gov is arguably more powerful than the Gov (like the Chancellor and VC at an Australian university, perhaps…)

    Now of course US States fill all these positions by separate majority vote, but then so do most Swiss Cantons. And it’s not a huge step from that to either switching to direct election of the Cabinet by PR (as some Cantons do), or adopting a convention that each party gets its proportionate share when the legislature fills executive offices by separate majority vote (Switzerland federally, although I note that Blocher’s party spat the dummy because the joint sitting pulled what Australians might call a “Pat Field” when appointing the People’s Party’s ‘representative” in the Cabinet).

  7. Tom, we are agreed on removability, although in all cases you mention but one (Donald Horn’s prediction that the title ]premier of Queensland’ would be changed to The Bjelke notwithstanding) the removal was for internal party reasons rather than serious issues of principle.

    We also have the problem that on matters where the major parties are agreed (Afghanistan is a good example) the unilateral powers of the prime minister approach infinity.

  8. I won’t weigh into the discussion Tom, Alan, and Ed are having here (though I am enjoying it), except to say that what you are discussing is at the very core of Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers.

  9. I’d add that thinking about removability requires you to address sad cases like Japan and NSW where party factions gain absolute control of leadership selection.

    As far as I know the vat creatures of the NSW Right have not yet decided that the state needs a fourth premier in the current parliament, but apparently they are already talking about having made a mistake with Gillard and the need to look for a new leader.

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