Why aren't there political parties on the ballot in Edmonton's upcoming election?

(File Photo)

Edmontonians are being asked to elect a new city council from dozens of candidates later this month, but nowhere on the ballot will there be any party labels. 

As has been the case for decades, all candidates in this year's race are running as independents. 

"When you ask people, would you like to see political parties competing in municipal elections, overwhelmingly, what you find is people say, 'absolutely not,'" said University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas.

It wasn't always that way, as political parties were once as much a part of Edmonton's local elections as they are in provincial or federal contests.

But as the role of local governments changed over the years, so did public expectations about how municipal politics should work, and that typically means without political parties. 

"Voters don't love the idea of seeing the kinds of partisan bickering that you see in question period in provincial or federal legislatures, showing up in their municipal councils as well."

PARTY HISTORY

Edmonton has seen various parties through its political history with a left-of-centre labour party and business-oriented right of centre party both materializing under various names for the early part of the 20th century. 

But as the city grew in the post-war years, Lucas says the nature of local politics changed to focus on how Alberta's burgeoning cities would be developed.

"You have politics that's much more geographically divided rather than divided on what you might call ideological or partisan lines," he said. 

"It has more to do with where's the development going to happen and who benefits or doesn't from that development."

By the mid-20th century, local government became seen as a deliverer of services that was best to avoid the partisan squabbles of senior governments. 

NO PARTIES, BUT STILL POLITICAL

Parties fizzled out of Edmonton's political scene by the 1970s. But just because there's no parties doesn't mean elections or local politics are non-partisan.

It's not hard to find political affiliations among city councillors and candidates for the upcoming election, with campaign sign colours often a telling clue.

City Councillors Mike Nickel, Moe Banga, and Tony Caterina have all previously sought office or nomination to a provincial or federal conservative political party. 

Similarly, Coun. Michael Walters ran as an Alberta Party candidate. And, several provincial New Democrat MLAs, though not the party itself, have endorsed a number of local candidates.

While parties haven't contested local elections in Alberta for decades, they remain a mainstay in some cities in British Columbia's Lower Mainland as well as across Quebec.

Parties there are almost all locally-based and not recognizable from provincial or federal politics.

Proponents of parties point to evidence from the United States and United Kingdom, where local parties provide familiar labels to voters and simplify their decisions while also establishing an official opposition to the dominant party on council. 

But Lucas says without a parliamentary system at the city level, councillors are limited in their ability to hold other councillors to account and that parties can get in the way of getting local matters done. 

"It constrains them," said Lucas. "It can prevent (councillors) from building the kind of board specific coalition that they want to build."

He says party labels can also strain relationships with senior levels of government, particularly if they're of a different partisan stripe. 

All of this means there's little reason for local candidates or established parties to challenge the party-less status quo.

"All of the different players in the game, for their own different reasons, have very little incentive to step in," Lucas said.