Liberals Surge to Parliamentary Majority in Canadian Election

After a lengthy 78 day election campaign that saw the Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats swapping positions in the polls throughout, Canadian voters at last went to the polls on Monday. The polls, which had shown a slight lead for the Liberal Party over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, appear to have built on the last-minute momentum the Liberals and Justin Trudeau gained to push the Liberals across the line to 184 seats and a majority government. Trudeau’s stewardship of the Liberals allowed them bounded back from a historic collapse in 2011 that left them with just 34 seats in Canada’s House of Commons and ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives after nine years.

Throughout the campaign, the fatigue of nine years of Stephen Harper showed itself again and again. The Conservatives were almost consistently in second place since the beginning of the election campaign on August 4. For almost the entirety of the first week of September, the Conservatives had even dropped to third place in the polling averages as the distances between the three parties narrowed. The only time the Conservatives were leading in the polls was a two week period at the end of September. The Conservative campaign were beset with a number of controversies surrounding individual candidates, but Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister was also under scrutiny from Canadians. In particular, popular backlash over the passage of the antiterrorism Bill C-51 that expanded the Canadian intelligence services as well as a stagnant economy that continued emphasis on resource extraction in the Prairie Provinces hurt Harper during the campaign. The economic issues worsened at the beginning of September when Canada officially entered a recession after a second quarter of GDP contraction, placing two recessions under Stephen Harper’s tenure.

In contrast, the New Democratic Party had been surging throughout the beginning of the election campaign. Normally a perennial third party, the traditionally left wing NDP had reached historic standing in the House of Commons after the 2011 election when they surpassed the Liberal Party to become Official Opposition. Under leader Thomas Mulcair, the NDP was hoping to maintain or expand this record representation in Parliament, and for a while it appeared they would. The New Democrats led in the polls until mid-September, even edging on polling numbers that may have placed them within sight of an unprecedented majority. However, support for the New Democratic Party began slipping away midway through the campaign, especially among in their 2011 base of support in Quebec. The recovery of the separatist Bloc Quebecois from their near wipeout in 2011 was a major factor in the fall of the NDP in much of the province. Other factors in the NDP’s return to third party status likely include strategic voting against Conservative candidates in many ridings and Mulcair’s principled stance opposing a ban on wearing the niqab in citizenship ceremonies. Harper’s government ignited an intense debate when it supported a ban on the niqab and other face coverings when taking the oath of citizenship. The Canadian federal appeals court overturned the ban, but many in Quebec supported the ban and this may have hurt the NDP’s chances in the province. Ultimately, Mulcair and the New Democrats did not fall too far in the election. While they went from winning 30.6% of the vote and 103 seats in 2011 to 19.7% and 44 seats in 2015, the NDP still won more seats in Parliament than they have ever received outside of the 2011 election. The New Democrats still are in a solid position with over a quarter of the vote in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Quebec, and if they keep this base of support could feasibly reach Official Opposition status again in the next couple elections.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, was entering the campaign off of a disastrous performance in 2011. The Liberal Party won just 34 seats in Parliament in 2011, the least number of seats they had ever won in an election and the first time they fell to third place in the seat count. In the 2013 party leadership election, the Liberal Party chose Justin Trudeau to lead them. Justin was aided by his family name. His father, Pierre Trudeau, was Prime Minister of Canada for almost the entire period of 1968 to 1984, with less than a year’s interruption by Joe Clark from June 1979 to March 1980. In the early days of the campaign, the Liberal position was tenuous as they stayed mired in third place. Trudeau faced criticism from both the right and the left. The Conservatives attacked him for his inexperience and only running on his father’s legacy, repeating the refrain that Justin was “just not ready.” Meanwhile, the NDP criticized Trudeau for his support of Bill C-51 and positioned themselves as the true party of the left in Canada. The metric of the NDP on the left, the Liberals in the center, and the Conservatives on the right became complicated later in the campaign when economic issues took the forefront. Tom Mulcair agreed with Harper in maintaining the budget surpluses that Harper had run in 2014 and 2015, while Trudeau argued for minor deficits to invest in Canada’s struggling economy.

With the New Democrats tacking to the center on some issues, the Liberals were seen once again as the party of the left. Additionally, strategic voting in many ridings to oust Harper led to voters to turn to the Liberals rather than the New Democrats as the best chance to defeat the Conservative candidate in many seats. With all of this coinciding right at the end of the campaign, it led to a Liberal surge during the advanced voting days and on election night that pushed Trudeau into the Prime Ministership with a slight majority. This is even more evident in the regional breakdown of the 2015 election. In Atlantic Canada – the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador – the Liberals completely swept the region, winning all 32 seats in the four provinces. Some seats, such as St. John’s East in Newfoundland, had incredible swings. The NDP incumbent MP Jack Harris had won the riding with over 71% in 2011. In 2015, however, Harris lost to Liberal Nick Whalen, with a 39 percent swing from the NDP to the Liberals. In 2011, Newfoundland and Labrador was the only province where the Liberals came in first in the popular vote. On Monday, the Liberals came first in every province and territory except for Alberta and Saskatchewan. Additionally, several of Harper’s cabinet ministers lost their ridings, including Minister of Finance Joe Oliver.

Now that the election is over, each party will have some challenges ahead. The Conservatives will be facing a battle for the party leadership as Stephen Harper, while not stepping down as an MP, has stated he will step down as leader of the Conservative Party. For Tom Mulcair and the New Democrats, while this election is perhaps not as bad as it could have been, they will undoubtedly have some contemplation over how they let a sizable lead slip away so much. The smaller parties will also have some interesting takeaways from this election. The Bloc Quebecois earned 10 seats in Quebec, a recovery from their near wipeout in 2011 that left them with only 4 seats. However, on the vote numbers, they actually received 70,000 fewer votes and almost 3% less of Quebec voters than in 2011. The main reason they held any seats this go around was the more divided electorate among the three major parties. LIke the Bloc, the Green Party also saw a drop in votes from 2011, but they will be more optimistic in their outlook. Elizabeth May increased her share of the vote in Saanich-Gulf Islands to a majority, keeping the leader of the Green Party in Parliament. The Green Party did considerably well in British Columbia and especially in the Vancouver Island ridings. In addition to holding Saanich-Gulf Islands, Green Party candidate Jo-Ann Roberts came in second in Victoria with 32%, tripling their performance in Victoria and coming in less than ten points behind NDP MP Murray Rankin. In the rest of Vancouver Island, the Greens doubled their vote share in nearly every riding and could potentially now have a solid support base to elect more MPs in the next election. And finally, the Liberal Party is now faced with governing again for the first time in nearly a decade. Justin Trudeau is preparing for the transition of power and will swear in the country’s new cabinet on November 4.

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