The fall of a hegemonic party?

In the chronicles of elections, ever noteworthy is the vote that results in the fall of a long-time hegemonic party. Tonight we may see such an outcome.

Somewhere in Africa? Asia, perhaps? No.

Canada. Or, to be more specific, Alberta.

The province has its legislative assembly election today, and the opposition Wildrose Alliance has been on track to win a majority. However, late in the campaign, the incumbent Conservatives have closed the gap. That we are witnessing a potential for alternation is momentous, for the Conservatives have governed since 1971, a string of eleven consecutive general elections.

During this string, the party has been genuinely hegemonic at times, winning more than 85% of the seats five times, and under 70% only twice (65.3% in 1971 and 61.5% in 1993). Its vote share has been under 50% only four times (1971, 1989, 1993, and 2004), with a low of 44.5% in 1993.

In the most recent election, that of 2008, the Conservatives managed 86.7% of the seats on 52.7% of the votes. Clearly, the party has benefited handsomely from the First Past the Post electoral system. At the same time, it has been more dominant in votes than most ruling parties under FPTP systems.

The challenger, the Wildrose Alliance, has attacked the Conservatives from the right. In 2008, Wildrose won only 6.8% of the vote and no seats. According to the ThreeHundredEight projection, Wildrose should win 43 seats out of 87, on 38.4% of the votes. The Conservatives should win 39 seats on 35.8% of the vote. Such a result would mean a balanced assembly, and likely a minority government. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the projection, with the estimate for Wildrose ranging from 22 to 62 and that for the Conservatives ranging from 20 to 62! Obviously there are a lot of closely contested ridings (districts) and this one may go down to the wire!

As has been usual in Alberta, the New Democratic Party looks set to come in third. The Liberals, who have been the second party in every election since 1989, with vote totals ranging from 26.4% to 39.7% in those elections (but only once more than 25% of the seats) might fall to fourth place.

With Wildrose hoovering up votes from disaffected right-wing voters who think the provincial Conservatives have gone soft, the Conservatives themselves may have to rely on tactical votes of NDP and Liberal sympathizers in urban ridings if they are going to hang on.

The Wildrose surge invites comparisons to the “tea party” south of the border. This is a party that does not accept climate science, wants to privatize (at least parts of) health-care delivery, and has had its share of gaffe-prone amateur candidates who were a bit too honest about their views on such topics as gays and South Asians.

Of course, the difference between Wildrose and tea-partiers is that while the latter have engaged in a takeover bid against the existing right-wing party, the former is challenging it head-on. Part of the difference is the dominance of the right in Alberta–even a split right will still result in a right-wing government of some flavor. And part of it is parliamentary democracy–operating as a tendency within a party is less attractive when you can form your own and thereby potentially take over the government.