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Saskatchewan: Awash in blue but hopeful for change

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The radical populism of the prairies, the home of North America's first socialist government and the birthplace of Medicare, is suffocating of late. The Conservatives have dominated the last three federal elections. Liberal Ralph Goodale is the lonesome voice of regional opposition. Given the political history and the continuing discontent of large groups of progressive Saskatchewan voters, recent election results are a frustration and an embarrassment.

The major concerns in Saskatchewan are the same as elsewhere. Biggest is the threat of a Harper majority with a full-scale retreat from the nation's social priorities with the emphasis on corporate tax cuts, prisons and jet fighters.

It's not as if Harper's herd of 13 MPs has done much for Saskatchewan. They remained totally silent during the province's campaign to resist the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan takeover by an Australian/American giant. They've taken the lead in attacking the Canadian Wheat Board and eroding its power and resources. Curiously, Saskatchewan farmers who continue to elect progressives to the Wheat Board have also been a major factor in electing sworn enemies of the board as their Members of Parliament.

Some factors which contribute to the Conservative dominance will still be in play in this election. But there is a growing basis of hope for a shift during this campaign.

Favouring the Conservatives is the first-past-the-post electoral system. Although province-wide they received roughly 50 per cent of the popular vote in 2008, they were awarded 93 per cent of the seats. In a proportional system with a regional pool of candidates, as in Europe, the province would be represented by seven Conservatives, four New Democrats, two Liberals and a Green member. This won't change anytime soon. But electoral reform is getting more recognition by some candidates as an issue and by a large portion of younger voters.

Another factor in past Saskatchewan results is the urban-rural political divide. Saskatchewan riding boundaries consistently combine a majority urban population with a sizeable minority rural population. The rural vote influences the final result because it is more concentrated with the Conservatives (up to 75 per cent).

The two largest cities, Regina and Saskatoon, are each divided into four ridings. Each riding has both rural and urban districts with an average two thirds or more urban population, and a rural extension containing 10 to 30 per cent of voters. Urban polls have been closer contests between New Democrats and Conservatives and sometimes Liberals. If ridings were fully separated into urban and rural,the probability of more New Democrat or Liberal members in Regina and Saskatoon ridings would significantly improve. It‘s no coincidence that Ralph Goodale represents the most proportionately urban riding (roughly 90 per cent) in the province. Riding boundaries remain a factor in this election.

Factors that have changed in Saskatchewan as compared to last time and that may make a difference in the results are the following.

1) Harper's silencing and control of local MPs is increasingly evident in Saskatchewan, where the silence has been deafening, even on resource issues like agriculture and the Potash Corporation takeover threat. There is contempt for the democratic process locally. One Saskatchewan MP, Ray Boughen in Palliser has never submitted to an open nominating convention, having been a late top-down appointment in 2008.

2) The danger of a Harper majority is a dominant concern here as it is across the country. It's beginning to push NDP, Liberal and Green supporters in Saskatchewan to begin to think more strategically in their own ridings. The possibility of both NDP and Liberal gains is real. The Conservatives received a minority of votes in four seats in 2008. One was Ralph Goodale's Wascana seat. The Conservatives have targeted it, and it's probable that some NDP supporters will cross over to support Goodale. Three other Conservative seats where they won with a minority could switch through strategic voting campaigns.

The Catch 22 campaign directs voters to the strongest alternative choice based on 2008 voting patterns in ridings across the country based on strong second place finishers. Regina Palliser and Saskatoon-Rosetown are included in the list of strategic ridings to prevent a Harper majority. The northern Riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River could similarly shift to the Liberals, who finished second. These shifts would be a major step to deny a Harper majority. They would finally begin to balance the representative voice of Saskatchewan.

3) Saskatchewan's economy is relatively strong, but the boom period has widened income disparities and created a shortage in affordable, rental and social housing across the province. The social needs of communities in housing, health care, childcare, post-secondary education and pensions are crying out for leadership, but the Conservative candidates are silent and empty on all fronts.

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