The Saskatchewan Election:
A 2020 Perspective
Saskatchewan’s Political Parties in the 2020 Election
Saskatchewan’s 2020 election saw six registered political parties compete: the Buffalo Party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Progressive Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party, and the Saskatchewan Party (Sask Party). The organizational dominance of the Sask Party and the continuing status of the NDP as the only other party with a reasonable chance of winning seats in the legislature suggest a fundamental continuity with previous elections.
The Sask Party has formed government and dominated Saskatchewan opinion polls since 2007. Formed as a coalition between Liberal and Progressive Conservative MLAs in 1997, it was led by Brad Wall between 2004 and 2018. Wall was a dominant figure in provincial politics, so the transition of the leadership to Scott Moe in 2018 was an important moment for the party. Moe, who has served as MLA for Rosthern-Shellbrook since 2011, was selected as leader in January 2018 after a leadership race with five candidates. Moe was widely seen as a consensus candidate for the party and had the support of the largest block of caucus members of any of the candidates.
The party began the campaign holding 46 seats in the legislature. 38 of its candidates were incumbents (some of whom had faced contested nomination races), 12 were women, and nine were visible minority or Indigenous. Its candidate in Saskatoon Eastview, Daryl Cooper, had to step down after social media posts sharing QAnon conspiracies surfaced, and he was replaced by Chris Guérette. Financial information for 2020 and the campaign period were not available at the time this was written, but the party reported $3.4M in contributions in 2019.[i] This fundraising advantage was reinforced by a comparatively strong party organization at the constituency level. The Sask Party’s “Plan for a Strong Saskatchewan” was built around the broad themes of a strong recovery, making life more affordable, growing Saskatchewan, strong fiscal management, and the party’s record in government. Most policies were incremental, with promises of modest tax credits, a return to a balanced budget in four years, and a range of actions to grow the province’s population and economy being the focus.
The NDP has struggled to find a way to challenge the Sask Party in the province’s suburbs and rural seats since its loss in 2007. It, too, was led by a new leader. Ryan Meili won a March 2018 leadership race, after coming second in 2009’s and 2013’s leadership races, drawing on support from the left wing of the party. The party began the campaign holding 13 seats (two were vacant). Emphasizing equity in its candidate selection, the NDP ran 28 women and 18 visible minority or Indigenous candidates. Nine incumbents ran for the party. It reported $1.4M in contributions in 2019.[ii] Controversy around the nomination of Sandra Morin (who ultimately ran as an independent) in Regina Walsh Acres hinted at divisions between at least one constituency association and the central party.
The NDP platform “People First” called for investment in public education, health care and long-term care, and a promise to halt cuts that the party argued would be coming under a Saskatchewan Party government. Its platform was a definite move to the left from recent NDP campaigns: it called for a Saskatchewan-First approach to infrastructure contracts, a $15/hr. minimum wage, a wealth tax, and a clean energy plan. Unlike the Saskatchewan Party, it made no commitment as to when the provincial budget would be balanced. Instead, it promised an expert panel to examine the province’s fiscal situation and sought to expand the language of deficits to include program deficits in “schools, hospitals, and the bank accounts of ordinary families.”
There’s no doubt that most commentary and attention in the campaign went to the two major parties. But brief consideration of the minor parties is worthwhile as they each highlight spaces on the political spectrum where the inhabitants feel underserved by the two major parties.
Both the Buffalo Party and the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan are to the right of the governing Sask Party. What is now the Buffalo Party initially registered in March 2020 as Wexit Saskatchewan. In June 2020, it rebranded itself as the Buffalo Party. It ran 17 candidates, all in rural areas. Winning three per cent of the vote and coming second in four ridings, its relative success raises important questions about alienation in rural Saskatchewan. The Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan has a long history and was led in the 2020 election by Ken Grey. It ran 31 candidates in both urban and rural ridings and won two per cent of the vote. Its presence, together with that of the Green Party, may have caused enough vote splitting to tip a handful of battleground urban ridings. Led by Naomi Hunter, the Saskatchewan Green Party ran candidates in all 61 ridings and won two per cent of the vote. Finally, 2020 was a very difficult year for the Saskatchewan Liberal Party. After the party had run a full slate of candidates in the 2016 election, the party acclaimed Naveed Anwar as leader in May of 2018. Anwar stepped down as leader in September 2020, and his place was taken as interim leader by Robert Rudachyk. It nominated only three candidates promoting and received only 370 votes.
Though delayed counting of mail-in ballots provided some drama to the final results, little changed in the legislature or in the popular vote as a result of the campaign. The Sask Party won 62 per cent of the vote and 48 seats, and the NDP won 31 per cent of the vote and 13 seats. Prince Albert Northcote, Saskatoon Riversdale, and Regina Northeast moved from NDP to Sask Party while the Sask Party also won the vacant seat of Regina Walsh Acres. The NDP won Regina University and Saskatoon University from the Sask Party while also winning the vacant seat of Saskatoon Eastview.
This is the Sask Party’s fourth majority government and the third election in a row where the party won more than 60 per cent of the vote. It cements Saskatchewan’s status as Canada’s most consistently conservative province and marks a smooth leadership transition for the province’s new natural governing party.
By (narrowly) winning his own seat, Ryan Meili has avoided the fate of the NDP’s previous two leaders. But he, and the NDP, will face the same challenges they have for the past decade: maintaining party unity, providing an effective opposition, and finding ways to build a broader electoral coalition.