Elections unexpected: complexity in the real world

For any person who relies on the behaviour of others for their well-being — politicians, big businesses and their executives, oil producing and commodity-exporting countries, people holding floating-rate mortgages, etc. — the last year has been a crash course in complexity 101.

You think? Not so.

Virtually all pollsters in the USA predicted a win for Hillary Clinton last November. Every big-name publication in America endorsed Hillary, and tenured Republicans like former presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney stopped short of campaigning against their party’s presidential candidate. What was supposed to be an easy, straightforward campaign for the former First Lady (1993 - 2001), New York Senator (2001 - 2009) and Secretary of State (2009 - 2013) turned out to be the most challenging, and whose outcome is probably the toughest to accept. Following the US election, all eyes turned to France. Marine Le Pen’s popularity surged as her (so-called) populist anti-EU, anti-immigration, nationalist rhetoric soared. Her most compelling rival was a political upstart; an ex-cabinet minister in the immediate former Hollande government, a former Rothschild banker, all of 39 years and with zero elective political experience. Drawing a straight line from an “unlikely” Trump victory to a “likely” Le Pen victory would be easy and, I admit, understandable. But a convincing 20%+ margin majority victory later and things do not seem so straightforward. Prime Minister May said that she wanted a stronger mandate as the UK went into Brexit negotiations. What wasn’t said (except by the pundits, professional prognosticators and commentaria) was that the Conservative Party’s most formidable competitor, the Labour Party, was reeling from Jeremy Corbyn’s poor (they said) leadership of the party and Mrs. May could expect a bigger majority (and more subdued opposition) in the House following last year’s “Brexit setback.” Oh! Not so. Labour has done impressively well and has emerged from being a thorn in the side of the Prime Minister to a dark cloud hanging over Conservative Party heads. Expectations have changed: from a larger majority in the House, to a coalition with the DUP, a party that won just 10 seats in parliament. In addition, the Scottish National Party performed terribly poorly at the polls, losing tens of seats in an election that could have been ideologically described (for SNP incumbents) as a confirmatory vote on the SNP’s Brexit policy.

What in the world is going on?

We could place all the blame on foreign governments meddling in elections. We could point to the influence of dark and powerful corporations and individuals determining the fate of nations in smoke-filled rooms, or meetings held at midnight in remote locations (preferably valleys, deserts or mountains) where songs are chanted and deals struck. George Orwell’s 1984 has always provided fodder for narratives explaining unexpected events. Or we could just admit that we don’t know, quickly orient our minds to a President Trump, a President Macron, a weaker Prime Minister May with a hung parliament and emboldened opposition, and prepare ourselves for more “surprises” in the future. Yes, we all have our hypotheses based on (extremely narrow and limited) personal experiences, preferences and cognitive biases, our personalised view of history and the future, our interpretation of trends and events (narrative fallacy), and our desire to be correct/right/win (confirmation bias). We may sometimes be right — if you asked 100 two-year old toddlers to choose who will win the 2017 Kenyan presidential election between the two leading candidates, we can expect that many of them will be proven correct in August. But does that mean that two-year old toddlers possess a special ability to peer into the future?

We do not know the future

History is neither a foretaste of the future, nor does it repeat itself (some say that it rhymes with the past). The closest thing to the future is the thing immediately before it, that is, today, now. If one must predict, that, I submit, is the most accurate predictor of the future.

As we go into the polls in August, allow me to make just one prediction: one of the two major presidential candidates and their multi-billion shilling campaigns will be quite disappointed by the August 8th election outcome. One will lose and the other will win, or the result will require a re-run. One of the major political parties will gain seats in parliament, or have its position weakened, or be forced to form a coalition with a smaller party or a set of independent MPs. Not only that, voting patterns will not be as linear and predictable as TV talking heads may suggest (because voters are people, and people are not linear and predictable). Presidential candidate A may win a particular constituency convincingly, but Governor/Senator/MCA/MP/Women’s Representative X (who was endorsed by presidential candidate A) will be soundly defeated in that constituency. Some of the candidates who win their elections will not be ‘true’ winners (that is, win the mandate of the people) but will in fact be a protest vote against incumbents that constituents want out (and hence they will be on a 5-year clock to win the hearts of the electorate otherwise they are likely to face the same fate).

In this world, the only sure things are death and taxes. And complexity. Things are not always as they appear, or as we think, or as we expect… It would be wise to expect the unexpected — that way we’ll be alright however things turn out.

 

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First published on Medium