August electoral roundup

Summer holidays in the northern hemisphere mean it’s a lean time for elections, but here’s a quick rundown on what’s been happening around the world.

Zambia

The only major election for this month is in Zambia, which voted last Thursday for both president and legislature. Incumbent president Edgar Lungu, of the Patriotic Front, had been in office since January 2015, when he was chosen to serve out the remainder of the term of his predecessor, who had died in office. In August 2016 he was elected to a full five-year term, narrowly defeating perennial opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, 50.4% to 47.6%.

With this year’s contest being a rematch between the same two main candidates, there were concerns beforehand as to whether it would be held fairly. Lungu’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, with the opposition complaining of restrictions on its campaign and a threat to the country’s internet access.

But they needn’t have worried. When official results were released, they showed Hichilema winning a crushing victory with 59.4% of the vote to just 38.3% for Lungu – a margin of almost a million votes. (Fourteen also-ran candidates shared the remaining 2.3%.) Turnout was a healthy 70.9%.

In a very Trumpy turn of events, Lungu has claimed fraud, saying that his party’s officials had been chased away from polling stations in some provinces. But the European Union’s observer mission noted only the advantages conferred by incumbency, and the BBC comments that even if Lungu launches a legal challenge, “the margin of his defeat might make it hard for judges to overturn the result.”

Bulgaria

Bulgaria went to the polls a month ago in its second election for the year, which again failed to produce a decisive result (see my report here). Neither the anti-establishment ITN nor the previous incumbents GERB, which finished close together in that order, had any obvious route to a majority. ITN, given the first opportunity, announced that it would try to form a minority government.

That came to grief last week when, after a round of unsuccessful talks with other parties, its nominee for prime minister, Plamen Nikolov, announced that he was giving up the attempt. President Rumen Radev will now offer the commission to GERB, but that’s even more obviously a non-starter: none of the other parties are likely to work with it, and GERB leader Boyko Borissov has previously indicated that he would not try to form a government.

There’s no possible majority without either ITN or GERB. The third-largest group, the Socialists, say they will suggest a continuation of the existing caretaker government, led by independent Stefan Yanev. Since it’s not obvious that anyone would gain much from a third election, it’s possible that that may work at least as an interim solution.

PS: Politico’s reporter spent his summer holiday in a Bulgarian village – his report tells you a lot about the political situation and the country in general.

Canada

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced on Sunday that he was calling an election for the House of Commons, the country’s lower house, for 20 September, less than two years into his second four-year term of office. (See here for my report on the last election, in October 2019.)

Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority the first time, back in 2015 (with just 39.5% of the vote). But four years later they were reduced to minority status, winning 33.1% of the vote and 157 seats in the 338-seat house. Since then, he has governed with the support of minor parties, particularly the left-wing New Democratic Party. Now, with (like most incumbents) his status boosted by the health crisis, he sees his chance to win majority government again.

But that’s no certainty. He leads the opposition Conservatives in the opinion polls (the Conservatives actually got more votes last time, despite winning fewer seats), but not by very much; the Liberals are still generally polling below 40%, and if voters think they’re being dragged to the polls unnecessarily that could fall further. And as I remarked last time, “it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for discerning voting intention, since it bears so little relationship to seats won.”

Scotland

Scotland’s election was back in May (see report here), with the incumbent Scottish Nationalists (SNP) again falling just short of a majority in their own right, with 40.3% of the vote and 64 of the 129 seats. They were quickly confirmed in office as a minority government, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon returning as first minister.

But with difficult times ahead – including confrontation with British prime minister Boris Johnson over a second independence referendum and over development of a new oil field off the Shetland Islands – Sturgeon apparently felt the need for a more solid basis. She therefore pursued negotiations with the Greens, who hold eight seats and also (mostly) support independence, although they abstained on Sturgeon’s installation.

The talks have dragged on, despite assurances from both sides that they were keen to finalise a deal. On Sunday the Greens’ co-leader promised that they were working to “finish off those last bits of discussion” and hoped for results “very soon”. Apparently the proposed agreement would fall short of a formal coalition, but may still give the Greens one or more ministerial portfolios.

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