Sask. NDP needs to reorganize, gain ground with rural voters, say experts


Pat Atkinson says the Saskatchewan NDP needs to reorganize after disappointing results in the 2020 general election. 

She said the party missed the mark with its campaign message in comparison to the Sask. Party, which repeatedly reminded people about the NDP’s decades-old decision to close rural hospitals and schools amid a fiscal crisis in the 1990s.

“Elections are always about the economy and I think the Sask. Party did a really good job of defining us, and we didn’t fight back,” Atkinson, a former NDP Finance and Education Minister who retired in 2011 as Saskatchewan’s longest-serving female MLA, said.

Atkinson said the party should have went on the offensive harder. 

“We had lots of ammunition to fight back with.” 

She pointed to the NDP having reduced provincial debt when it was in power in the 1990s, the province’s current $2.1-billion deficit, the near $24-billion debt load and the Sask. Party’s small number of balanced budgets. 

Atkinson said the NDP needed to get 20 seats in the 2020 election if it wanted to become a “government in waiting.” The party is projected to have at least 11 seats. There are still eight constituencies hanging in the balance, including the seat of party leader Ryan Meili, with tens of thousands of mail-in ballots still to be counted. Meili trails his opponent Rylund Hunter by 83 votes, with as many as 1,656 mail-in ballots to be counted in the riding. 

No resonance in rural 

The Sask. Party’s ascension to a fourth majority government has been propelled by rural constituencies. 

“It’s still very clear that there’s no resonance whatsoever in rural Saskatchewan —  and that’s a third of the province,” Tom McIntosh, a professor of political studies at the University of Regina, said. He noted how the Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan — formed in March — achieved more votes than the NDP in four constituencies. The Buffalo Party took 2.9 per cent of the total votes counted Monday with 17 candidates.

McIntosh said the NDP needs to come up with a message that will resonate with rural people if it intends to move forward. 

Atkinson said the party wasn’t able to motivate the rural supporters it does have to get out. 

“A lot of [rural] New Democrats are afraid to show their head, or to put their head up, because they feel as though their  constituency is so overwhelming Sask. Party and it can be demoralizing.” 

Atkinson said the party had some optimism after Meili seemed to have a successful Leaders’ Debate, but she doesn’t believe that mobilized voters either. 

City ‘machine’ lacking

McIntosh said the NDP appears to have support, but is lacking activists and supporters who are willing to work on behalf of the party — people who will pound the pavement, get the message out and get others to the polls. 

“There doesn’t seem to be the machine there to deliver that vote that there seemed to be a couple of decades ago.”

Atikinson said there is a small glimmer of hope for the party to make ground in the city. The constituencies that haven’t been called are all urban. Several are riding where the party was trying to make gains. However, three of them are seats that were previously held by the NDP. 

There were more than 61,000 mail-in ballots requested in the province. Atkinson said people who vote New Democrat have been reported as more likely to vote by mail due to COVID-19 concerns. 

Elections Saskatchewan will begin counting the thousands of mail-in ballots tomorrow beginning with the tightest races. “It’s not over yet,” Atkinson said. Regardless of if the party does gain additional seats, she said it needs to rethink its strategy moving forward. 

Moving forward 

Atkinson said the NDP is struggling, but that she believes the Sask. Party is also up against big challenges in the next four years. 

“Our economy is in the tank right now. I don’t see the resource sector coming back anytime soon and we’re going to have significant problems coming out of this pandemic in terms of GDP growth.” 

She also said the new caucus, which includes multiple rookie MLAs, will have to be tougher and attack harder moving forward. 

“We’re going to really have to focus on the weakness of the Sask. Party.” 

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