Premier John Horgan heads to his ride following his announcement that there will be a fall election as he speaks during a press conference in Langford, B.C., on Monday September 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

In snap election, Horgan must prove COVID-19 track record to cynical voters: experts

NDP leader is ahead in the polls but calling election is a political risk

Calling an election as cases spike in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan will have to wait and see if voters stay in his corner on voting day, say political experts.

Horgan called a snap election Monday (Sept. 21) at a press conference in Langford, just three weeks after an Angus Reid Institute poll dubbed him the most popular premier in Canada. But will that stick?

“The government has managed the pandemic well,” said Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus in the department of political science at the University of B.C.

“Meanwhile, Mr. Horgan is a very deft campaigner … he managed to deal with the difficult questions [Monday] remarkably well.”

READ MORE: Citing stability, B.C. Premier calls snap election for Oct. 24

An Angus Reid Institute poll released Sept. 4 showed that 48 per cent of surveyed voters intended to vote NDP, compared to 29 per cent for the Liberals and 14 per cent for the Green Party.

When announcing the election, scheduled for Oct. 24, Horgan cited stability as a key reason, but acknowledged he “struggled mightily” with the decision.

“I cannot imagine 12 more months of bickering,” the premier said, referring to what would have been the scheduled date of the next election, October 2021.

However, regardless of whether parties will be able to avoid post-election bickering, Johnston said Horgan has set himself up for 34 days of just that.

“The messaging around politics has been controlled by government. Once you dissolve the legislature, that ceases to be true and you open up the floodgates for the opposition.”

Calling a snap election mid-pandemic can also create cynicism that could overshadow the NDP’s success so far in leading B.C. through the pandemic.

“We might see a drop in turnout just because people are disgusted,” Johnston said.

“There is a fear that policy towards the pandemic may be politicized.”

Gerald Baier, an associate professor in UBC’s political science department, said how voters view Horgan breaking the NDP’s minority government agreement with the Greens will depend on their partisan preferences.

“They’ll have grounds to be cynical. Certainly I think the Greens and the Liberals will keep that in mind for people. They’ll say ‘Look, this is an unnecessary election’ but at some point they have to change gears, too.”

However, Baier said the “instability” cited by Horgan at his election kick-off press conference was a bit “manufactured.”

“The reason why seven cabinet ministers said they aren’t going to run in the next election is because he asked them [if they would run]. So he kind of created a sense of instability.”

Helping Horgan will be that the 2020 election will focus largely on one issue, COVID-19, where Liberals may find it hard to differentiate their policy, Johnston said.

The other uncertainty is the pandemic itself. B.C. has seen an increase in cases in recent weeks, and 366 COVID-19 cases and four deaths over the weekend for a total of 8,208 cases and 227 deaths since the pandemic began. As of Monday morning, the province had the highest number of cases per capita, at 36 per 100,000, above the Canadian average of 26.

“If it explodes, even if the death rate doesn’t go up, I think that’s something that [Horgan] is going to have to wear.”

READ MORE: B.C. has highest number of active COVID-19 cases per capita, federal data shows


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