International Papers

Vote Early and Often

An early election gamble paid off this week for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. On Tuesday, Ehud Barak of Israel made a similar bet, with smaller odds of success.

Despite pre-election predictions that Chrétien’s Liberals would be reduced to a minority government, the party won a third consecutive majority in stunning fashion, moving from 155 to 172 seats in the 301-seat House of Commons. An op-ed in Toronto’s Globe and Mail did an admirable job of enumerating Chrétien’s achievements, among which are: winning an election “nobody else thought should have been called,” winning “more seats than anyone projected,” surviving calls for Finance Minister Paul Martin to take over the party’s leadership, seeing almost all his Cabinet members from the Prairies and Western Canada re-elected, winning back Atlantic Canada, outsmarting opposition Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, continuing to “benefit from a divided opposition,” and toughing out “one of the most brutal assaults on the integrity of a political leader in modern Canadian political history.” For another Globe and Mail columnist, Chrétien’s achievement was understanding that “Canadians are fundamentally a moderate people, skeptical of political adventurism and averse to ideology. If they want change, as they sometimes do, it had better be of a modest, reassuring variety.”

In many ways, Canada’s election results show an increasingly balkanized nation—with the right-wing Canadian Alliance dominating the western provinces and the Liberals owning the populous East. The Vancouver Sun ran a news story that mocked Chrétien by presenting his rather idiosyncratic English in its raw state: “Some stop coming to the West after disappointing results, and for me I keep going there. I’ve been in B.C. five, six times in the last two years and I will keep doing that. I’ve done it all my life. It’s difficult but I wanted them to feel part of Canada.” (An editorial in Spain’s El País described the prime minister as being “bilingual, though hardly eloquent in either language.”) The Vancouver Province claimed “western alienation” was the reason Liberals did poorly in British Columbia—based to some extent on remarks Chrétien made during the campaign about preferring to work with “eastern politicians” and his choice to spend “far more time campaigning in the Atlantic provinces, with a total of 32 seats, than he did in 34-seat British Columbia.”

Unexpected success came to the Liberals in Quebec, where the party took 37 seats, the same number as the separatist Bloc Québécois, whose tally was down from 44 in 1997 and 54 in 1993. Le Devoir of Montreal agreed that currently “sovereigntists seem incapable of making gains, or even of maintaining their position.” The editorial suggested that since sovereignty was not an issue in this federal election, separatists didn’t bother to vote. Indeed, the paper reported Canada’s turnout was at a 75-year low—62.9 percent nationally, down from 67 percent in 1997; in Quebec the decline was from 73.3 percent to 63.5 percent. (Turnout in the recent U.S. election was around 50 percent.)

Despite the Canadian Alliance increasing its share of the popular vote from 19.4 percent to 25.5 percent and its seat total from 60 to 66, the party’s performance was judged a disappointment because it failed to make substantial gains in Ontario—the California, New York, and Texas of Canadian politics—where the Liberals took 100 of the 103 seats. An op-ed in the conservative National Post declared, “The irony of the Reform and the Alliance parties is that they have been just strong enough to destroy the Progressive Conservatives in their traditional heartland of rural Ontario, but not strong enough to elect their own MPs there.” An editorial in the same paper said party leader Stockwell Day needs to develop gravitas and to recruit “quality advisors, assistants and future candidates” if the party is to achieve the necessary breakthrough into central and eastern Canada.

Tuesday, the Financial Times congratulated “[l]ucky Canadians. The result of their national election … was done and dusted within hours.” The results, however speedily calculated, didn’t please the pro-proportional representation authors of an op-ed in Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, however. They pointed out that Canada (along with the United States) is one of just five countries still using the “outdated” winner-take-all system, which “gives each parliamentary seat to the party that wins the most votes in that [district], and throws out the rest of the votes as irrelevant, no matter that they expressed the democratic wishes of, very likely, the majority of the voters in that [district].” (Among the inequities created by this system Monday:

The Canadian Alliance garnered about 1.9 million votes across the four Western provinces for 64 of their 66 seats. But they also received more than one million votes in Ontario; all for a paltry two seats. Meanwhile, the Liberals cleaned house in Ontario with about 2.3 million votes and 101 seats—about twice as many votes as the Alliance but 50 times as many seats. In the West, this electoral perversion continues. The Liberals received about 950,000 votes in the four Western provinces—about half of the Alliance total—but got only one-fifth as many seats.

PR in action: Israel may not be the best example of proportional representation. The Times of London said, “nothing could be more ill-adapted to crisis than the present chaotic line-up in the Knesset, where Mr Barak lacks a majority and no fewer than 19 different parties occupy its 120 seats.” The editorial suggested Ehud Barak “jump[ed] before he was pushed” Tuesday, when, realizing he was about to lose a vote on the dissolution of parliament, he called for a general election just 18 months into his term. Continuing the metaphor, an analysis in the Jerusalem Post declared:

Ehud Barak’s high-wire act ended in a bad fall last night, and there was no safety net beneath him. … Barak’s big top has collapsed in an unsightly heap, and he’s unlikely to recruit partners to help him put it up again. He has consistently alienated any would-be assistants, and now no one will readily come to the aid of the unpopular aerialist and enable him to attempt yet another daredevil stunt.

Britain’s Independent called the election “essential” since it offers “the best, however limited, hope of clearing the country’s rancid political air.” Barak’s announcement allows him to set the date—after consultation with the opposition—and early May seems most likely. Ha’aretz speculated that Barak hopes to use the next four or five months to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, using the election as a referendum on the deal.

Hindi hiccups: Britain’s real royals, soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria aka “Posh Spice,” received a ribbing this week when the Guardian revealed that David’s new tattoo—his wife’s name in Hindi—contained a typo. The editor of a Hindi-language magazine told the paper: “Whoever wrote this tattoo is clearly not a Hindi expert. There is no H in Victoria when it is written in Hindi.” Apparently, Victoria is a name Indians “are used to writing” thanks to a certain empress. Unfortunately, the Guardian’s coup was spoiled somewhat by an error the paper corrected thus:

The graphic accompanying our report about the misspelling of a tattoo on David Beckham’s arm, giving his wife Victoria’s name in Hindi, page 1, yesterday, itself had a mistake in it. In transcribing the erroneous tattoo we inserted an extra character, thereby simply adding to the confusion. The fact remains, that the tattoo on Beckham’s arm is wrong (but not as wrong as our version).