By Mansoor Ladha
Naheed Nenshi scored a stunning hat-trick by winning the election and securing the mayor’s chair for the third time. It was not an easy or comfortable win as the campaign was marred by mudslinging, hatred, bigotry and abuse.
Nenshi’s closest rival, Bill Smith and his supporters, left no stone unturned with the sole aim of unseating the incumbent mayor. From the start, Nenshi and Smith entered the election “ring” as two boxers vying for the precious trophy – the mayor’s chair.
The fact that Smith has been reluctant to disclose names of those who donated to his campaign, indicates that he was aided and funded by powerful developers and leading Conservatives in Calgary. With colourful ads trumpeting his triumphs in daily papers and splashed over TV screens, it appeared at first that he was headed for victory and was confident of securing the mayoralty trophy. Even the polls went like a see-saw, giving leads to Smith first and then to Nenshi. Finally, it was the people’s choice that prevailed at the ultimate poll, shaming the pollsters.
Smith urged his supporters to fire Nenshi, blaming him for everything that has gone wrong in Calgary and Alberta. Nenshi was to be blamed for Calgary’s economic downturn, high unemployment, municipal tax burden, arena and Flames fiasco. The electorate was in a really foul mood and self-styled critics came out of the woodwork, dismayed by from energy project cancellation to high vacancy rate in the city’s office buildings.
The federal Liberal government and the provincial NDP administration’s role in creating economic uncertainty were largely forgotten. The fact that Nenshi has only one vote and Calgary council decisions are made by majority of members was also conveniently forgotten.
Perhaps the main regrettable aspect of this year’s municipal election was that despite standing in long line-ups, some people were unable to vote because they went home out of frustration while others couldn’t get ballots. This is a tragic situation which demands immediate attention by election officials. There is no reason why anyone should be prevented from exercising their democratic right in Canada.
In the final stretch of the campaign, hateful messages and personal attacks appeared on the social media, attacking Nenshi’s religion, appearance and beliefs – things that have no relevance to the election.
As long-time councillor Druh Farrell said: It was the most negative campaign I have ever seen in Calgary but it wasn’t effective and that gives me hope for the future…(Politics) needs to be about ideas and solutions, and ultimately that won out.”
To his credit, Nenshi concentrated on outlining his policies and what he would achieve if elected compared to policy-starved Smith, who was silent on major issues.
It says a lot about the conservative stronghold of Calgary when it shows confidence by electing the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city. As Mount Royal University political scientist, Lori Williams said: “It gratified a great many Calgarians who really liked that this counteracted or challenged assumptions about the character of Alberta and Calgary in particular.”
Religion and race are personal, touchy and offensive issues and should especially avoided during election. One’s capacity to govern and perform in a public office should not be judged by race or religion. In this election and in 2010 election, candidate Nenshi’s religion, Muslim, has been mentioned. In 2010, I wrote a column in one of the dailies emphasizing that when voters go to cast their ballots, they look at a candidate’s credentials and qualifications and not his religion. And that’s why one’s religion is absent from the ballot. Nenshi, as a brilliant, Harvard-educated and eloquent orator, has all the qualifications needed for a candidate and Calgarians are fortunate that he has offered his services and run for public office.
One must also pay tribute to hundreds of amazing Nenshi campaign volunteers of all colours and religions, blue collar and white collar, who worked tirelessly for their candidate by door knocking, canvassing on the phone, putting up signs etc. This is their victory, it’s the people’s victory and should be shared with all volunteers.
Although Nenshi secured 195,586 votes while Smith received 167,666, his popularity fell from 73.6 per cent in 2013 to 51 per cent this time. It has been suggested that the main reason for that is his arrogant attitude. During a mayoral debate at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Smith equated him to an employee who starts out great but “they don’t listen to advice, they don’t keep their promises, they don’t learn from their mistakes, they don’t work well with others and they always think they’re the smartest person in the room.”
One can dismiss the above criticism coming from an election rival. Our mayor-designate has indicated that he is willing to change for the better. “We have so much to be proud of but we also have so much to learn from,” he told the crowd of supporters at his victory party. “It’s also humbling because what you’ve given me once again is an extraordinary gift and that gift is your trust and I promise you that I will never, never break that trust.”
Hopefully, as a post-mortem exercise, Nenshi has learnt a bit of humility from this election. I am sure, as an educated person, as a university professor turned politician, he is capable of identifying his faults and improvise over them. We should look forward to the next four years of his reign with a lot of anticipation and great hope. Calgary won’t be disappointed. After all, he was previously the World’s Greatest Mayor!!
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based columnist, travel writer and author of A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims and Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West.