Here in the United States, there is never any doubt about the date of the next election: The Constitution provides the schedule. But our northern neighbors don’t have it so easy. Right up until the parliamentary vote that toppled the government of Canada last Friday, pundits debated whether citizens would go to the polls in 2011. In the end, the three opposition parties united to bring down the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, sending Canadians back to the ballot boxes for the fourth time since 2004.
The uncertainty stemmed from the fact that, since 2004, no party has controlled a majority of seats in the Parliament. Under these “minority government” conditions, nobody knows how long the government will survive or when the next campaign will be; at any point, the opposition parties can express “non-confidence” in the government, which as a matter of constitutional convention requires the dissolution of Parliament and a return to the polls.
Minority governments have actually been the rare exception in Canadian history. But since 2004 they have seemed almost inevitable. That is largely because political support is now divided among four political parties. The Liberals, who governed for most of the twentieth century, remain popular in large cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The Conservatives are strongest in the western provinces, and in rural areas, small cities, and suburbs. The New Democrats, an unpopular socialist outfit, are often elected in university towns and economically depressed regions. And the Bloc Quebecois, a party dedicated to Quebec separatism, only runs candidates in that province—but dominates it.
Why did the opposition parties choose to force an election now? Nobody is quite sure. The polls do not suggest much if any change from 2008, when the Conservatives won just over 140 seats (out of 308) with 37.5 percent of the popular vote. If anything, the Conservatives have since that time been single-mindedly focused on winning over the dozen or so swing districts that would give them a majority. (Many of these districts are heavily populated by recent immigrants, whom Conservatives have been courting in a smart and coherent campaign.) Frustration with being out of power, especially on the part of Liberals who remember life before opposition, probably accounts for the decision to roll the dice.
The absence of any impetus for an election explains the relative banality of the campaign thus far. The Conservatives are running a classic "Stay the Course" campaign, emphasizing their low-tax, modest-stimulus economic agenda and its relative success in combating the global recession. They are attacking the Liberal leader, former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, as an arrogant, self-interested elitist who only returned to Canada after 30 years abroad in order to further his own ambitions. Ignatieff, for his part, is hammering Conservatives over planned tax cuts for “wealthy” corporations and costly investments in Canada’s aged military equipment.
Much of the campaign’s first week has been devoted to Prime Minister Harper’s claim that, if he does not win a majority of seats this go-around, the opposition parties (all to the Conservatives’ left) would cooperate to install Ignatieff as prime minister. While perfectly legal, such a gambit is deeply unpopular, and the opposition parties have issued lawyerly denials while keeping open their most likely door to power. If the Conservatives falter slightly—only a major setback would allow the Liberals to win the most seats—an informal coalition of liberals, socialists, and separatists may well result. That would be a serious loss, for Canada and for the world.
Yaakov Roth, a native of Toronto, is a lawyer in Washington.