Friday, April 29, 2011

Canadian Elections and Strategy: Easy Solutions for Hard Problems...?

Dr. Hari Bapuji

Prof. Henry Mintzberg, one of the most respected strategy scholars, has been weighing in on the upcoming elections in Canada. I am pleased to see him speak on an issue that is relevant to all Canadians because I believe that academics have a responsibility to use their research and knowledge to inform public opinion. So, in the same spirit, I decided to think further about the strategy offered by Prof. Mintzberg.

Briefly, Prof. Henry Mintzberg suggests that Canada is at a danger in this elections and has offered a strategy to conserve Canada by keeping Conservatives from forming the next government. He recommends that voters consult the latest polls in their ridings to vote strategically against the Conservatives and in favour of any candidate (irrespective of party affiliation) who has the greatest chance of defeating the Conservative candidate. My intention is not to advocate for or against any political party, but only to reflect on the “anything, but the Conservative strategy” (ABC strategy) offered by Prof. Mintzberg and if it alone can achieve the goal of conserving Canada.

Although past polls might not be the best way to predict the outcomes in future elections, this data shows that the ABC strategy is unlikely to work. In the most ideal conditions, this strategy works well in those ridings where the Conservatives polled less than 50 percent votes. For obvious reasons, even pooling together all the non-Conservative votes in ridings where the Conservatives polled over 50 percent votes will not defeat them. Of the 143 seats the Conservatives won in 2008, their vote percentage was less than 50 percent in 63 seats. Of these 63, the number of seats that can be targeted are those where the vote percentage of the Conservatives was 45 percent or less and the winning margin is less than 10 percent. There are 25 such seats, which if wrested from the Conservatives through the ABC strategy would reduce their tally to 126. However, that is unlikely to happen given the difficulties of getting people to change their voting preferences and mobilizing all the non-Conservative voters to implement the ABC strategy. So, what is reasonably possible is that the seats the Conservatives won with less than 5 percent margin in 2008 can be won by others with the ABC strategy. The number of such seats is 17 across Canada. So, if all these seats are wrested from the Conservatives, then the tally of the Conservatives would reduce to 126. Whether the ABC strategy reduces the tally of the Conservatives to 126 or 118, that will be unlikely to keep the Conservatives from staking a legitimate claim to form the next government. Going by the past results (Liberal – 77; Bloc Québécois – 49, and NDP – 29), the Conservatives might still be the single largest party and might have a better shot at forming the government in a 308-seat parliament.

Another reason why the ABC strategy might not work is that it interacts with the strategy of the Conservatives. Let us for a moment, assume that the Conservative strategy is to win the seats they lost by less than 5 percent votes in 2008. The number of such seats is 15, which would be similar to the seats they would have lost if the ABC strategy becomes successful. In fact, of the 165 seats won by the non-Conservatives, 125 seats were won with less than 50 percent votes; thus, more non-Conservative ridings are theoretically at a greater risk of changing hands than the Conservative ones. As a result, the ABC strategy does not appear to be sound if the objective is to keep the Conservatives away from power. A number of things might change and the Conservatives might not form the next government, but that is a separate issue and is not borne out of the ABC strategy of defeating the Conservatives in their weak ridings.

As I thought about this, I felt that the real issue is not to keep one party or the other out, but to elect a government that is better representative of Canadians and truly respects their will. The only way to achieve it is by voting. In the last elections, only 59 percent of the electorate cast ballot. This percentage is small for the democratic process in a developed country; for example, in just concluded provincial elections in India, the voting was over 70 percent and even touched 85 percent in some provinces. A higher voter turnout would not only help to elect a government that represent the majority of Canadians, but will also let the governing parties know the will of all Canadians – thus preventing them from acting against the will of Canadians. At times, governments go against the will of people, but they do so at their own peril.

Dr. Hari Bapuji is Associate Professor of Strategic Management and International Business, Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba

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