With a provincial election days away, we can reflect on how far democracy has come in Alberta in the last decade. For most of its existence, Alberta had only two parties in power – each for more than 35 consecutive years – but in 2015 and in 2019 the governing parties changed in rapid succession. Albertans started claiming their right to have choice in who best represents their interests.
In the 2023 provincial election, there are fourteen parties running candidates. Two parties have candidates in all ridings – Alberta New Democrat and United Conservative – while two other parties in the Wildrose Loyalty Coalition and Green Party are running candidates in about half the provincial ridings, giving Albertans diversity of candidates and choice in representation.
On the campaign trail, we see the leaders of the two front-running parties passionate about policy, committed to winning and not afraid to make bold promises. They are also both women – another sign of progress. But healthy democracies need more than strong leaders, they also need engaged citizens – people who are willing to participate in the political process and elect decision-makers who can best represent them.
There are many factors that affect how people choose to vote. Voter demographics such as socioeconomic status, gender, education, religion and racial identity all play a role. Some people vote for a party from a sense of allegiance or loyalty, sometimes generational within families.
Others vote based on the policies and platforms unveiled by political parties, particularly related to issues that are most important to them such as healthcare, education, jobs or income. Still, others consider the personal appeal of the party leader, the strength of their local candidate or their values or emotions.
Economic factors also play into people’s voting decisions. Economic upswings tend to favour the incumbent party whereas an economic downturn brings about change in power, even when economic fortunes are determined by global events and forces outside the influence of provincial governments such as oil prices, collapse of financial institutions or pandemics. Finally, people may choose to vote strategically, casting a ballot for their second choice knowing that their first-choice candidate does not have a chance of winning.
Given all these different factors affecting voting, how is one to decide?
First, you have to cut out the distractions – campaign advertisements that play on emotions such as fear and anger, media stories that focus on leaders’ perceived personality strengths or flaws and fluctuations in the economy that cannot possibly be influenced by provincial politics.
Second, you have to identify issues that truly matter to you and your fellow Albertans and inform yourself of how each party plans to address them if elected to power. Finally, you have to make a calculation as to how likely the party leader will be effective and sincere in following through on promises. If this sounds like a difficult task, it is. Exercising your civic duty of voting is a serious responsibility.
There are resources you can turn to in making your choice. Political parties have their election platforms on their websites for the general public to access. Online tools such as CBC’s Vote Compass can help you assess which major political parties align with your views on election issues that are important to you. You can also reread previous columns of The Engaged Citizen (accessible online) to remind yourself of evidence for various social and health policies that political parties may be proposing.
In addition to getting out and voting, we need to make known our support for electoral systems and political practices that strengthen democracy. For example, our flawed first-past-the-post electoral system allows parties who may receive less than 40 per cent of the popular vote to have 100 per cent of the power – think about the Liberal majority win in the 2015 federal election.
Proportional representation is an alternative model that ensures fair representation for smaller parties who may garner for example 10 per cent of the total vote, but only win a single seat in the legislature. This electoral system leads to increased collaboration and innovation in policy-making and less polarization among parties and voters.
Party practices that encourage women and people from diverse backgrounds to stand as candidates, and support them to win their campaigns, also benefit the democratic process. When people from traditionally underrepresented groups are at the governing table, they help make decisions that improve justice and fairness, helping create an equitable society that benefits all. When people see their identities represented, their sense of political efficacy increases and civic participation receives a boost. When diverse perspectives are represented, problem-solving is enhanced and creative solutions emerge.
Democracy in Alberta has come a long way since the province was created in 1905. But there is still a lot of work to do.
On May 29, no matter which party gets elected, let’s make sure that democracy emerges as the clear winner.
Vamini Selvanandan is a rural family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.