On March 25, the three opposition parties in Canada’s House of Commons voted no-confidence in the government of Stephen Harper, and Canada was plunged into its fourth federal election in seven years.
All of the national parties — the Conservatives, the New Democrats, and the Liberals — went into the campaign hoping to break a deadlock in Canadian politics that began in 2004, when support for the Liberals collapsed in the wake of the Sponsorship Scandal.
We’ve had seven years of minority government. Usually, that means fairly good government. For people like Stephen Harper, who don’t respect the views or intelligence of their political rivals, this has meant frustration.
For more than a century, the Liberals had been Canada’s “natural governing party”. The Liberals are, in fact, one of the most successful political parties in the world. From 1887 until 2004, every leader of the federal Liberal Party had served at least one term as Prime Minister.
The Conservatives have been Canada’s minority party since they imposed the military draft in World War I. The New Democratic Party, a social democratic movement that was loosely based on the British Labour Party, never placed better than third. In recent years, all it could hope for was to play “kingmaker” in a hung parliament.
When this campaign began, little change was expected. The Conservatives hoped to win a majority the House of Commons. The Liberals believed they had a serious chance to win the most seats and form a minority government. Another scenario saw them combining with the opposition parties to form a coalition government — either a formal one, with cabinet ministers from both the Liberal and New Democratic parties, or an informal one in which all of the ministries were in Liberal hands but the party kept NDP support by adopting some of their policies.
The spoiler, since 1991, has been the separatist Bloc Québécois, which tended to win about 50 of the 75 seats in Quebec. None of the national parties wanted to court the Bloc’s public support for fear of appearing unpatriotic.
But halfway through the 37-day campaign, the election went from a quiet exercise in political tinkering to a massive change in Canada’s political culture. Polls show the NDP have made a historic breakthrough in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc Québécois. If the public opinion surveys are accurate, the Dippers will crush the separatists and replace the Liberals as the second-largest political party in Canada.
And, while Stephen Harper will likely come away from this campaign as prime minister, his chances of ever winning a majority — or staying in national politics much longer — appear to have been dashed.
Personalities have played an important part in the campaign. Harper has failed to connect with voters and has alienated himself from the media. Canadians grudgingly give him credit as an economic manager but are wary that he would re-make Canada into a neo-conservative state, starving the national health care system of money, ending support for culture, and cutting other public services.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has been hobbled by Conservative attack advertisements that began two years before the election campaign actually started. Ignatieff left Canada in the 1970s to study at Harvard University and lived in Britain for nearly two decades, where he worked as a BBC commentator, war correspondent, and author. The Conservatives created a belief in the minds of many Canadians that Ignatieff was an opportunist who returned to Canada to take over the government.
No one had spent much time bothering to attack the NDP. Its leader, Jack Layton, is recovering from prostate cancer and, just before the election call, had surgery on his hip. The country has warmed to a candidate who had to use a cane as he campaigned in every corner of this vast country looking for the votes of its 33 million people.
Layton scored well in the French and English debates. His command of French and his promise to listen to the complaints of Quebeckers began to resonate. Many Quebec voters, frustrated that the separatist Bloc had little power in parliament, began considering the NDP as a real alternative.
In many ways, it was a process of elimination. The Conservatives are seen in Quebec as a western, English party that opposes the aspirations of French Quebec. The Liberals are still distrusted because of the advertising kickback scandal that drove them from office in 2006. Most of the kickbacks involved advertising agencies in Quebec.
Polls now show the NDP poised to win the bulk of the seats in Quebec. In the 60-year history of the party, it had never done better than one seat. That would, for the first time, make the NDP a true contender at the national level.
And even if that support falls back, the Liberals and Conservatives will now have to take the NDP much more seriously than they ever have.
The Conservatives may win Monday’s election. They may even get their majority. But the rise of the NDP and the decline of the Liberals have made this the most interesting election in decades, and one of the most important in the history of the country.