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The Globe and Mail

PEI heads to polls with history of electing big majorities

Premier Robert Ghiz and his wife Kate Ellis Ghiz arrive at a leaders' debate for the Prince Edward Island provincial election in Charlottetown on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.


As Prince Edward Islanders go to the polls Monday, they do so with a history of electing lopsided majorities and giving governments a second chance.

Liberal Leader Robert Ghiz would like that tradition to hold as he seeks a second mandate. Opposition Conservative Leader Olive Crane, the only Tory incumbent running in the election, hopes to change the tide.

In 2000, the Conservatives won 26 of the province's 27 seats in the legislature, leaving the Liberals with one. Four years later, the Tories took 23 seats to the Liberals' four.

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But a big swing in 2007 saw the Ghiz-led Liberals reverse that outcome.

Ian Dowbiggin, a history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, says the large majorities and significant swings in support are facts of Island politics.

Mr. Dowbiggin says the shifts are due to several factors – one of them being that the Liberals and Conservatives have been virtually the only choice for voters. The province has only elected one New Democrat to the legislature.

Another reason is the fact that, with 27 districts in a province of about 140,000 people, it doesn't take much to produce large shifts in results.

"A decision in any particular district can shift with only 10 or 20 votes in some cases," Mr. Dowbiggin says.

"The swing vote, then, doesn't have to be dramatic. It can be 20, 30, 50 votes. So it's largely a case of just numbers.

"So what happens is, if there is even a small shift in the popular vote, it translates into these dramatic changes in seat totals."

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Mr. Dowbiggin says there's another consistent factor that suggests Ms. Crane has a tough battle to unseat Mr. Ghiz.

Since 1966, the Island has never had a one-term government, and often parties have been in power for three successive terms.

"Given that pattern it looks like the Liberals will get not only re-elected on Monday, but re-elected with a large seat total," says Mr. Dowbiggin.

Mr. Dowbiggin says the Liberals appear to have emerged relatively unscathed by the one major controversy of the election campaign stemming from a failed immigration nominee program.

Three former employees of the province alleged the program was marred by bribery. The federal Immigration Department forwarded the accusations to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Mounties are considering whether to proceed with an investigation after a former immigration program employee alleged she saw senior provincial officials accept cash that she believes was intended to fast-track immigration applications from China.

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Mr. Ghiz has dismissed the accusations, saying they're an attempt to blindside his government in the midst of the campaign.

Mr. Dowbiggin says he doesn't believe the allegations will have an impact at the polls.

"It doesn't seem to be sticking to the Liberals at all," he says.

In a bigger province, Mr. Dowbiggin says such a scandal could give the governing party the boot. But once again, he says the politics of the tiny Island are different.

He says in PEI, people practise "the politics of familiarity" because they see their elected officials on the street, in the grocery store and at the coffee shop.

"There's a real sense of familiarity and once a party gets into power, I think a lot of voters ... they're willing to cut that party, that government, a lot of slack that you wouldn't get in other provinces," he says.

"So they're most likely to give people in government, who they feel a kinship to, several chances at governing."

The large role the government plays in a province this size can't be ignored either, he added.

"Government plays a big role here in Prince Edward Island in the everyday lives of voters – especially in terms of jobs, especially in terms of employment, but also in terms of infrastructure," he says.

"A lot of voters think seriously when they cast their votes. Do they want to be on the side of government? Because if you're not on the side of government, well, your neighbourhood street might not get paved, or that rink that you've always wanted in your community won't get built."

At dissolution, there were 24 Liberals, two Conservatives and one vacancy.

The NDP, Greens and Island party are fielding candidates in the election, but only the Liberals and Conservatives are running full slates.

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