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Third party politics' rare victory in US city

A socialist was elected to Seattle's city council, but candidates from minor parties face strong headwinds nationwide.

Last updated: 21 Jan 2014 08:30
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Kshama Sawant defeated a 16-year Democratic incumbent in the Seattle city council race she won [AP]

Seattle, United States - The election of a socialist to one of this city's nine council seats hardly seems enough to make a dent in a legacy of two-party control here, much less in the country - where the Democratic and Republican parties have long dominated.

But while Kshama Sawant's surprising defeat of a 16-year Democratic incumbent to become the city's first socialist council member in more than a century might not appear to directly alter an entrenched political system, it's clear that people here aren't afraid of alternative positions. 

Sawant calls it a sea change. "The election of an open Socialist into the council of a major city in the United States has not only local political significance but also national significance," Sawant told Al Jazeera. "Our election is a star in the sky that shows a sign of change."

City council races are nominally non-partisan, but the 41-year-old Socialist Alternative Party member and immigrant from India said candidates usually make their political affiliations known. Sawant, a former community college economics teacher and software engineer, did more than that. She boldly championed socialism, which has long been regarded as a bad word in US politics.

The election of one candidate, while it's a good sign, is not reason to suggest competition has been restored to the American political system. It's a worsening situation.

- Oliver Hall, attorney

Anti-competitive barriers

Attorney Oliver Hall isn't convinced. He represented consumer advocate and then-presidential candidate Ralph Nader in a lawsuit filed against the Democratic Party after the 2004 presidential election, alleging that party members tried to sabotage his campaign and keep his name off of ballots in critical states.

"The election of one candidate, while it's a good sign, is not reason to suggest competition has been restored to the American political system," Hall told Al Jazeera. "It's a worsening situation."

Still, nationwide the Libertarian Party lists 150 members in elected offices, including city council members. The Green Party lists 37 officials elected into office in 2013, including five city council members. Meanwhile, Minneapolis' Ty Moore, also a Socialist Alternative member, recently lost a city council seat by a margin of just 229 votes.

The US' electoral system has institutional and structural barriers that make it difficult for alternative parties to penetrate a legacy of two-party control. Hall points to the difficultly for alternative candidates to participate in presidential debates as an example. These debates, televised nationally, are a powerful vehicle for candidates to share messages and drum up support from voters across the country.

The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in the late 1980s by the two parties to oversee political debates between presidential candidates, who must garner at least 15 percent support across national polls to take part.

Third-party supporters say that percentage is unreasonably high for candidates without established political backing, and that exclusion from debates makes it so they'll never have one - without as wide an audience, their messages and campaigns are stomped out by other more visible candidates, generally from the two-party system.

Former New Mexico Governor and then-Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson sued the commission in 2012 after being excluded from the debates. The case was ultimately dismissed.

Other anti-competitive barriers include restrictive ballot access laws enacted by state governments that determine which candidates will appear on the ballot. Some states require a number of signatures on nomination petitions that Hall said can be out of reach for third-party and grassroots campaigns.

And "gerrymandering", an age-old practice in which the party in control of state government repositions the boundaries of voting districts, allows candidates to effectively choose their voters in a "complete inversion of the democratic process", said Hall.

The US' electoral process itself is a barrier for candidates from smaller parties. "Our single-member-district, winner-takes-all electoral system discourages third parties," Hall said. "There's no prize for second place, so voters tend to coalesce around the two front-runners."

With only one vote in hand, many people are discouraged from voting for a third-party candidate if it's unlikely that person is going to win.

Social change

But even when third-party candidates don't win, according to Hall, they can still provide a valuable contribution to the political process.

"A lot of social welfare reforms that we now just take for granted were introduced not by major parties, but by third parties," Hall said. "Minimum wage, social security, 40-hour work week, income tax - all of these ideas are now accepted on a mainstream, widespread level and started out as ideas that the major parties wouldn't talk about."

Sawant last year ran against Frank Chopp, the Democratic speaker of Washington state's House of Representatives. She didn't win, but said the campaign helped her advocate for the ideas of Occupy Seattle, a movement to balance social and economic inequalities.

Sawant proposes an increase in the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour - $5.68 higher than the statewide minimum wage and more than twice as high as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Politicians have a finger to the wind. If somebody comes up fast and wins, they ask themselves why and understand that this is something that people are starting to demand.

- Ralph Nader, former third-party presidential candidate

She claims her campaign and election affected the discourse on the minimum wage. In November, voters in Sea-Tac, a small city south of Seattle, approved a measure to increase the minimum wage to $15. 

Newly elected Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the city's first openly gay mayor, issued an executive order earlier this month raising the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Monday called for a more aggressive push towards a statewide minimum wage increase of up to $2.50 more per hour.

For his part, Murray publicly dismissed Sawant's claim to the Seattle Times that the move showed the mayor was "feeling the pressure from below to act on the rhetoric from the campaign". 

"My commitments during the campaign, including on the minimum wage issue, were just that - sincere commitments - not just rhetoric, as your quote implies," Murray wrote on his Facebook page.

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader said it's common for mainstream politicians to endorse popular ideas. "Politicians have a finger to the wind," he told Al Jazeera. "If somebody comes up fast and wins, they ask themselves why and understand that this is something that people are starting to demand."

Theresa Amato, author of Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny, said more choices are necessary for a functioning political system. "Any healthy system has a way to regenerate," she told Al Jazeera. "Lowering the barriers to entry is a way for new ideas to come in and replace the gridlock and stagnations that the two parties offer."

Historically, the US has had vibrant and robust participation from libertarians, socialists and other alternative parties, according to Amato, but they've never really taken hold of the country's political system, especially not in recent decades.

Amato said Americans need to have a "major national conversation about the role of money and alternative choices in politics" in order to change the country's political climate. It's costly to run campaigns in the US, which can often cost millions of dollars. Third-party candidates, without strong party structure and monetary backing, are often unable to gain traction.

Sawant said engaged voters, especially young ones, and candidates who campaign for issues dear to voters will help restore what she described as the country's stagnant political process.

The demographic studies so far, she said, indicate a decisive shift in participation from younger voters during her election.

"People, especially young people, are sick and tired of politics and business as usual and were drawn to our campaign precisely because we were offering a real alternative," Sawant said. "Young voters mostly felt disenfranchised and disengaged from the political process because they didn't see any of the local officials really standing up for them."

Follow Ashley Stewart on Twitter: @ashannstew

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Al Jazeera
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