Canadian election: Is strategic voting really strategic?

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmad Khawaja

Dhu al-Hijjah 17, 1436 2015-10-01

Special Reports

by Ahmad Khawaja (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1436)

There is a notion that Muslims would be better served by voting strategically. This means voting for a party not to your liking in order to defeat one that you even dislike more. Does this really make sense?

With Canadian federal election due on October 19 and parties frantically vying for votes in what is considered to be a close race between the three major parties (NDP, Liberals and Conservatives), the call for strategic voting has once again reared its ugly head. For those unfamiliar with the term, strategic voting is the idea that based on current polling data in a particular riding, voters should cast their ballot for the party with the greatest chances of defeating the incumbent party (in this case the Conservative Party of Canada). Simply put, it means voting for a party you don’t necessarily want in order to keep out another that you really don’t want.

At first glance this approach appears to be commendable. Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party were elected (in 2011) by fewer than 40% of voters, which means more than 60% of eletorate did not want Harper as prime minister. So why not vote strategically? If 60% of voters can unite behind a candidate who can defeat the Conservative candidate we can get what we want right? Wrong.

First and foremost the need for strategic voting can be completely eliminated through a variety of electoral reform. The current first-past-the-post system is completely outdated and almost always results in the phenomenon known as vote-splitting. Reform in the model of Instant Runoff Voting should be given serious consideration and appears highly desirable.

Second, voting “strategically” allows the pollsters to shape the elections. In his 2010 article Vote With Your Heart Dave Meslin writes:

Strategic voting is based on the premise that you already know how everyone else is going to vote – before election day. This is based on polling that has been provided to you by media companies who usually have political ties to specific parties or candidates. Giving in to strategic polling gives way too much power to our pollsters and political strategists who we know are very selective about when they release a poll, which parts of a poll they release – or whether to release a poll at all. Polling ruins elections, by marginalizing new and young voices early on in the race – before the campaigns have even started. Polls are bad for politics, and strategic voting lends legitimacy to polls.

Third, to vote “strategically” is to self-censor. Your vote is your opinion, your vote is your voice. Leaving Plato’s critique of democracy aside, the unfortunate reality is that policy is swayed by popular opinion. Whether that popular opinion is manufactured (a la Noam Chomsky) or not the reality remains the same. Politicians play to their perception of the public and unless one is actively involved in the policy producing process one’s vote may be the only chance to chime in. Meslin continues:

After all, your vote is your chance to be heard. Don’t relinquish that right. Each vote for each candidate will have an impact on the outcome, and on future policies, and future campaigns. Has it occurred to anyone that Barrack Obama’s candidacy and victory was a direct result of Ralph Nader’s candidacy in previous elections? Maybe the democrats, after losing votes to Nader, had to ask themselves “Why are we losing votes to this guy? What’s he saying that we’re not saying? How is he attracting young voters and volunteers? What is Facebook?”. Without Nader in the picture, it would have been much easier to simply shift to the centre-right and try to erode the Republican vote. But you can’t shift away from your core support, if someone is around to pick up the pieces…Don’t underestimate the immense power that ‘fringe’ candidates can have. In Toronto, for example, look at the Green Party. They can’t win a seat, even downtown, but people keep voting for them – and in increasing numbers. The NDP accuses them of being vote splitters, of being Ralph Naders. Personally, I would take that as a compliment. Even if a Green candidate only gets a few hundred votes, if the following election is a tight race between the Liberals and NDP you can bet that both of those parties will be doing everything they can to get those Green votes. And how do you get Green votes? By incorporating elements of their platform into your own. By becoming more Green. In other words, the Greens can win, without winning.

The individual’s vote, whether it serves to encourage a losing candidate to try again next time or to keep fighting the good fight also serves to let parties know what a person’s stances are. Take the example of Bill C-51. Both the Liberals and Conservatives voted in support of this Bill while the NDP and the Green Party voted against it. This stance by the NDP and the Greens boosted their support (keeping in mind polls are not everything) to the detriment of the Liberals and Conservatives. If one is opposed to C-51 and a Green Party supporter, choosing to vote strategically for the Liberals, for example, would hide the fact one opposed the Liberals’ stance on this issue. By choosing to vote “strategically” one is effectively saying that he/she is willing to compromise on their beliefs. By not compromising on ones beliefs and staying true to one’s party tells other parties that they would have to change positions if they want your vote.

The Canadian-Muslim Context

Let us be clear about some basic facts: the Canadian Muslim community is not a monolith, nor are any representation claims being made here (if you meet the Budda on the road…). Muslims come from all political stripes across the spectrum and backgrounds. Why is this election important to them? Simply because they are Canadians, and what happens in this election affects them just as much as any other Canadian.

According to a 2011 Ipsos Poll, of all Muslim voters, 46% voted for the Liberal Party, 38% voted for the New Democrats, and 12% voted Conservative. A whopping 84% of Muslim voters did not support the Conservative Party in the last election. Many from within and outside of the community recognised these numbers and have begun advocating for strategic voting in attempts to finally defeat the Conservatives. This writer falls into the 84% category and is not inclined to vote for the Conservative Party however, strategic voting is not the way forward.

To reiterate, the Muslim community in Canada is not made up of a homogenized block of personnel or political views. Some may be opposed to the Harper Conservatives on the basis of their abysmal fiscal record, others on their environmental, democratic or foreign policies - whatever the case, a massive 84% do not seem to like Harper. The question now remains what can be done? Strategic voting certainly seems like an attractive option, but does it really get to the root of the problem? Will the [Justin] Trudeau Liberals, the [Elizabeth] May Greens, or the [Tom] Mulcair NDPeers be a party worth giving up your vote for?

As with any other faith community, the Muslim community in Canada feels strongly for the plight of our co-religionists. Many of our friends may not be aware of the history of Srebrenica, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the ongoing Indian military occupation of Kashmir, the colonization of the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the Sykes-Picot agreement or what Canadian author Naomi Klein refers to as the Shock Doctrine. Many may not be aware of the plight of the Aboriginal community in Canada, and many may not be aware of Canada’s history of supporting foreign dictators. With this in mind, imagine what it must feel like to be a Muslim of Gujrati-Indian decent and to witness Harper so warmly welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man who was previously barred from entering the United States and Canada for his role in the February 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujrat.

What does this have to do with strategic voting, you might ask. The answer is everything. Every election cycle, NDP supporters are asked to strategically vote for Liberals to keep the Conservatives out. If strategic voting is the answer, how does one explain the orange wave in the 2011 federal election or the 2015 Alberta provincial election? Why should the NDP have to give up their ballots and their seats in parliament? How can voices in the Muslim community even suggest we do such a thing, when within the time frame of a month Trudeau went from tweeting the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his fight against apartheid (and supposed Liberal historical support) to tweeting his condolences for Ariel Sharon, the father of Palestinian apartheid? How can some Muslims ask the community to vote for someone who welcomed the Butcher of Gujrat with open arms, who were the authors of the appalling Omar Khadr saga, who voted for Bill C-51, who staunchly oppose the BDS movement and the list goes on. The Liberal party has not been a friend of the Muslims, and will not be getting my vote.

Some may argue that this position is naïve or that the Muslim community does not volunteer enough or donate as much as other communities, rendering our issues to the status of secondary importance. While there is always a need to build bridges between governments and citizens, such arguments cannot excuse bigoted positions. Politicians must take principled positions if they seek the support of people with principle.

I am a strong believer in the fact that how our government views the less fortunate abroad is a reflection of how they view the less fortunate at home. Injustice supported abroad likely indicates injustice at home, from the inner city, to city hall and beyond. At the end of the day the choice is ours, October 19 is fast approaching and a decision must be made. I can’t tell you who to vote for, but the red pot and the blue kettle both look black to me. The option to support those who support us is the only real strategic vote.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,

The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy B. Shelly

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