A few years ago, Canada was a contented center-left country whose conservative party had been nearly obliterated by scandal and ideological infighting. In national elections Monday, however, while their southern cousins were reveling in the death of Osama Bin Laden, "True North" voters quietly lurched both right and left simultaneously. They gave Conservatives their first majority government in a generation, yet also elevated the left wing New Democrats (a former fringe in Ottawa) to the stature of leader of the opposition. They also destroyed Quebec’s separatists as a national party and reduced the long dominant Liberal party to an electoral after-thought.
It was a political transformation. For the first time in many years, Canada is dividing along the left-right axis familiar to other Western countries.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper this spring asked Canadians for"“a strong, stable national majority" and, against the pollsters’ predictions, voters gave it to him. Tories won about 167 of the 308 seats in Parliament, shaming the opposition parties’ strategists who in April pushed a "no confidence" vote on Harper's minority-led government and brought on the election. For two of the opposition parties, at least, it was a big mistake.
The formerly third ranking party, the left wing New Democrats (NDP), perhaps did not conclude that the election was a mistake, however. Promising to spend generously on any program someone could imagine, the NDP was persuasively more anti-Tory than the Liberals and appealed to young voters and restless progressive Quebec voters ready to abandon the Bloc Quebecois.
The NDP’s ebullient Jack Layton, encumbered by a cane from recent surgery, appeared to engage in campaigning as physical therapy and wound up waving his cane around like a sword. Layton led his party to a second place finish with about 102 seats. The Tories employed the apparent surge of the NDP to scare business-minded liberals into defecting to the Conservatives.
Here's what else the election did:
• The formally separatist Bloc Quebecois, having only narrowly failed in its effort to disassemble Canada in the '90s, is now down to a mere four seats in Parliament. Bloc leader Giles Duceppe lost his own riding (district). Some 59 of the NDP's 102 members are freshmen from Quebec, most of them in seats gained from the Bloc.
• The long dominant Liberal Party was nearly, but not completely, ruined, winning only 34 or so seats. If Layton was the Hubert Humphrey-style happy warrior of the campaign, former professor Michael Ignatieff was the Liberal Party version of Adlai Stevenson: a cheerful intellectual, a bit aloof in spite of himself, and ill at ease as a campaign scrambler. He asked for this election, and this election spoiled his electoral future. At least we will have in tomorrow's Michael Ignatieff one political scientist with practical, if disappointing, campaign experience.
• The Greens' national leader, Elizabeth May, won a seat from BC's Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast; it’s her party’s first seat in Parliament. Greens will be further emboldened in the future, further diluting any chance for electoral coalition.
The left in Canada's new Parliament generally will agree to dislike the Tories, and agree on little else. A positive amalgamation is reasonable, but unlikely.
In contrast, expect the Conservatives to expand. Under new federal law the prime minister’s party now enjoys a term of at least four years. That will give incumbents a chance to entrench their gains in Atlantic Canada, recover in Quebec, maintain their big margins in the West, and cultivate their vital 16 new seats in vote-rich Ontario. The Tories had breakthroughs in urban areas and among minorities this year. More than any opponents, they are a national party. The NDP is spectral in Ontario, while Liberals are nearly spent in Quebec and the West.
Expect Harper to advance a conservative agenda, but gingerly. His program features spending restraints, but no huge cuts; corporate business tax cuts, free trade, and no cap-and-trade in energy. Tories are moderate on immigration, offer lots of little programs here and there in community development and education, propose a stronger defense (which, in Canada, is not saying much), and promise an end to troops in Afghanistan. Oddly, Canada is supportive of the Libya war, but that didn’t become a campaign issue. Neither did social issues.
In his victory speech Harper seemed unplugged, effortlessly easygoing, thoughtfully considerate of his opponents, and patriotic in the way lately fashionable in Canada. Stephen Harper is a study in squareness become charisma. It's a great feat for a pol, and he finally accomplished it.