Canada’s Upcoming Election Could Lead to Political Realignment

In just about two months on October 19, Canada will go to the polls to decide on the next Parliament. The 2015 election will be very different from past elections for several reasons. For one, the campaign will be the longest Canadian election campaign in over a century. In fact, when Prime Minister Harper called the election on August 2, he initiated the second longest election campaign in Canadian history. The 1872 election was the only one to surpass 2015, and in the 1872 election the campaign was only that long due to staggered voting and the distance of the newly admitted provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba. For 2015, however, the reasons for the longer campaign are less practical and more a strategy by Harper and the Conservative Party. A 2007 amendment to the Canadian Elections Act mandated fixed election dates no matter when the election is called, so the actual day of voting would be in October no matter what. Additionally, the Fair Elections Act passed by the Conservatives in 2014 changed campaign finance laws to lift the strict limit on campaign spending and institute a flexible limit depending on the length of the campaign. As such, a longer election campaign means a higher spending limit. With the amount raised by each party, the new campaign finance rules will almost solely benefit the Conservative Party.

Moving on from the length of the campaign, the 2015 Canadian election promises to be one of the most interesting and competitive federal election in recent times as the current party system of Canadian politics is being upended. Previous governments have almost always had the Liberal Party on the broad left and either the Conservatives or their predecessors the Progressive-Conservatives on the broad right as the top two parties in parliament. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party, which lies further to the left in policy than the Liberals, had been a fairly consistent third or fourth party, usually netting between 20 and 40 of Canada’s parliamentary seats. The nationalist Bloc Quebecois emerged in the 1990s as a fourth party and could be counted on to have around fifty seats in Quebec. This balance had largely held steady since the 1990s and the eventual formation of the modern Conservative Party under Stephen Harper in 2003. However, a number of shocking results in the 2011 federal election seems to have signaled the beginning of a transition period in Canada’s political makeup going into the 2015 election.

The 2011 election was very contentious and unprecedented in the events that led to the writ being dropped. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government proposed a budget in March of 2011, but all three opposition parties (the Liberals, the NDP, and the BQ) rejected Harper’s proposed budget. Days later, the House of Commons passed a motion of no confidence against the Harper government and found the Cabinet to be in contempt of Parliament. Canada’s Governor General David Johnston issued the writs of election on March 26, with election day being held on May 2, 2011. After a strong campaign from the NDP and leader Jack Layton and a disappointing campaign by Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, the results of the election were surprising. Layton’s NDP surged to over 100 seats in Parliament for the first time and replaced the Liberals as the official opposition. Harper’s Conservatives actually increased their number of seats, going from a shaky minority government to a full majority of 166 seats. The Liberals, meanwhile, fell to third place for the first time in their 150 year history, reaching a historic low of only 34 seats. The rise of the NDP built heavily on a shocking collapse of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, with the BQ falling to just four seats. The Green Party led by Elizabeth May also won their first seat in Parliament, with May’s victory in the Vancouver Island riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands.

While this year’s election campaign is only in its early stages, some trends have already become clear. Most notable is the continued rise of the New Democrats under federal leader Thomas Mulcair. The NDP has been further boosted by an upset victory at the provincial level earlier this year. In staunchly Conservative Alberta, the NDP scored an unexpected majority in the province’s assembly in May of this year. NDP leader Rachel Notley became Albert’s Premier with 54 seats in the provincial assembly. Fueled by discontent over Conservative Premier Jim Prentice and a split in the right wing vote between the Conservatives and the province’s Wildrose Party, the NDP won all the seats in Edmonton and even won many of the seats in rural northwestern Alberta. Federally, this has helped the NDP revise their image to a plausible party of government, and spurred the party’s lead in the national polls. Currently, the NDP leads the national polls with about 32% while both the Conservatives and Liberals are polling under 30%. The Bloc Quebecois also continue to be in trouble in Quebec. While the return of leader Gilles Duceppe sparked a brief rise in popularity of the party in Quebec, as of July they have dropped back to under 20% in Quebec. Additionally, the seat projections for the BQ do not look like much of a recovery. The Bloc are only projected to get a maximum of 8 seats, with under 5 seats the most likely outcome.

On the other hand, the Green Party could experience a relative surge in their representation in the House of Commons. Elizabeth May will almost certainly retain her seat. Focused campaigning by the Greens has also made journalist Jo-Ann Roberts competitive as a Green candidate against NDP incumbent Murray Rankin in the Victoria, BC riding. Further experienced candidates make the Greens potentially competitive in two other ridings. MP Bruce Hyer changed his party registration from NDP to the Green Party in 2013 and is seeking reelection as a Green Party candidate in the western Ontario riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. Lastly, in a new suburban Montreal riding, former NDP MP Jose Nunez-Melo is running for the Greens after he criticized the NDP’s candidate nomination process. With these ridings in play, the Green Party could win up to four seats in the 2015 election – possibly pushing them past the Bloc Quebecois in terms of representation – and will certainly remain a fixture in Canadian politics for the time being.

While there is still two months until the voters go to the polls, it seems that a new balance of power in the Canadian political system is gradually solidifying. For the time being, a three-way tug of war between the NDP, the Liberals, and the Conservatives will likely continue. With Canada having recently entered another recession, the NDP will probably gain their first national plurality in the October election. The Liberal Party, however, are in a precarious situation. If Justin Trudeau proves a capable party leader like his father, the Liberals could stay competitive and either regain their place as the opposition or at least stay competitive with the NDP and the Conservatives. However, if Trudeau’s leadership is not effective enough at recovering from the disastrous leadership of Ingatieff, the Liberals could find themselves permanently reduced to the third party. If that happens, the Canadian political system could end up similar to the United Kingdom with the Conservatives representing the broad right, the New Democrats representing the broad left, and the Liberals as a lesser but significant third party occupying the center of the spectrum.

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