A perfectly normal election

First it seemed boring. Canada was sleepwalking to yet another Conservative minority, with hardly any change in the four represented parties’ seat totals. Then it got exciting. The NDP was surging, and there was talk of Prime Minister Layton, winning a majority with the backing the remnant of the Liberals, joining to defeat outgoing PM Harper’s Throne Speech.

Then they had the election. Boring. Just another two-and-a-half (or should that be two-and-a-third?) party system under FPTP. Positively British, or at least the way Britain used to be. Two big parties, one of the left, the other of the right, one of which has a comfortable majority. Plus a small third liberal party squeezed between the big two. A few scattered “others.”

The pollsters and prognosticators generally got the NDP right: around 30% of the votes and 100 seats seemed to be the consensus. However, they missed the extent of the Liberal-Conservative swing. The Tories won almost 40% of the vote, when more like 35% was expected. The Liberals failed to make it to 20%. More importantly, the Conservatives will have 167 seats, when most projections had them in the 145-150 range (where 155 is a majority). The Liberals are reduced to just 34 seats, the Bloc Quebecois to 4 (yes, four). The Greens picked up their first seat. (See overall results at CBC.)

4 thoughts on “A perfectly normal election

  1. What I find fascinating about Canadian politics is that shifts and realignments that happen once a generation in other systems seem to happen every other election in Canada. It seems Canadian voters are unusually fickle.

    In my lifetime (I was born in 1970), we have been given the collapse and extinction of Social Credit (1980), the collapse and the the revival of the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP (1993 and 1997), the emergence of Reform and the Bloc (1993), the Reform-PC merger (2004), the collapse of the Bloc (2011), the Liberals near sweep of Quebec (1980) and then Ontario (1993, 1997, 2001), five elections resulting in minority governments (1972, 1979, 2004, 2006, 2008), one landslide (1984), the free trade election (1988), the NDP threatening to replace the Liberals as the main center-left Party (1988), collapsing as their voters coalesce around the Liberals (1993), and then finally overtaking the Liberals (2011), plus one election won by the right due to vote splitting on the left (1988), and one won by the left due to vote splitting on the right (1997).

    I’m not Canadian. Because the country has an (unfair) reputation as being boring, the extreme gyrations of Canadian party politics are mostly unrecognized.

  2. Make no mistake, this was the most structurally significant election in Canadian history. Bigger than 1993 or 1920.

    – A gov’t has built a coalition between Ontario and the West to win a majority of seats without Quebec. The only other time this happened was in 1958, when regional parties and 3rd parties were at their post-1920 nadir.

    – The Bloc is down, and probably out. The party was originally intended as a temporary measure, and is seen to have outlived its usefulness. This means that Quebec has made a choice to at least have the opportunity of participating in Canadian politics again

    – the absence of the Bloc makes it possible for a centre-left or left party to form majority gov’t in the future again (as we’ve just seen, Quebec used to be needed for a right-led majority, but no more).

    – The NDP has long been the obvious choice, and after 2000, the only way out of the Bloc/Liberal nationalist-federalist struggle in Quebec, towards a more natural political cleavage based on arranging social and economic affairs. And so it now has been given the opportunity to replace the Liberals as one of the two dominant parties. It could reverse again, but because of what’s coming next (read far below), less than likely.

    – The Liberals, long known as the Natural Governing Party, will likely be around for a while, but are unlikely to form government ever again. This is chiefly because their stay was prolonged by voting and strategic logic which became irreversibly obsolete with this election – the NDP is demonstrably a viable vote now.

    – the Bloc paradoxically acted as a kind of release valve for Quebec separatism and Quebec nationalism. The former is likely defeated for good, but with one more big fight left. The latter remains, and will once again have to be dealt with within the national parties. This will bring Quebec nationalism back as the central issue in federal politics, possibly for the last time. Quebec separatists will get one more kick at the can in the next 10 years.

    @Ed: Here’s my take on the gyrations.

    Canada has had frequent gyrations in the last 53 years, but that was atypical. The last 50 years has really been about settling just two struggles, and the end game is nearing for both. There is one more big storm brewing, and beyond that, probably a long calm.

    The first struggle was the long-term decline of the single dominant party of the centre or centre-left, the Liberals, and its eventual replacement by a competitive two party system. While the decline has been evident since 1972, it took 39 more years to be realized. It took much longer than usual with many side trips because of the second struggle, that of accommodating Quebec nationalism following the secular modernization of Quebec.

    Now it comes to a head: For the first time, Quebec is electorally dominated federally by a competitive national party that matches it on the social spectrum (as opposed to the Mulroney coalition of the 80s). This likely means another round of constitutional wrangling lies in the future (2 years or 10 years). A single country or several will emerge from that crisis, but if the former, then the parties that survive it will endure, and the wild gyrations will be over for a generation or more.

    What’s up for the long calm? Getting through boomer retirement, adjusting for climate change, but above all, surviving after peak oil. Peak Oil, and the attendant rise in cost of producing all commodities, is going to radically alter the world’s economy after 2025. Quebec separatism will look like a piece of cake compared to governing then.

    In Canada, no party is credibly thinking about any of the big issues it will face. With the gyrations over, maybe we will get that chance.

  3. Ross, no reason to be concerned about length of comments! All contributions to the discussion are welcome.

    Just to be clear: My “perfectly normal” remark was partly tongue in cheek provocation (which worked!) and partly serious commentary on Canada in comparative context. This is the most “normal” FPTP election Canada has had in a while, and it took an absolutely historic shift in Canadian voting patterns to bring it about. It will be fascinating to see over the next 2-4 elections or so whether this “new normal” is sustained.

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