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A Northern Realignment?

On May 2nd of this year, Canadians went to polls to cast ballots in what ended up being a very historic election. Prime Minister Stephen Harper won the majority which had eluded him in his two terms, and Jack Layton, leader of the social democratic New Democratic Party, became the first person in his party to be designated leader of the official opposition. This election will long be studied for its impact on the Canadian political landscape. A concise review of several factors pertaining to this election is essential.

Canada has traditionally had two dominant political parties. From the middle portion of the twentieth century until 2003, the major parties in Canada were the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Both of these were “big tent” parties, with the former leaning rightward and the latter increasingly leaning leftward. During this same period, social democratic groups coalesced into the New Democratic Party, which has since been the third largest party represented in Parliament.

This situation began to change following the end of the Cold War when conservatism experienced a resurgence internationally and national independence movements were in vogue.

As a result, two new parties of consequence began to form in Canada. One of these parties, the Reform Party, tended to address the concerns of social conservatives and populist critics of the Canadian status quo. The other party, the Bloc Quebecois, only fielded candidates in the Province of Quebec and maintained as its goal the independence of the province. It was comparable to the Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party in the United Kingdom.

Whereas Quebec was the base of support for the BQ, Reform supporters were concentrated disproportionately in the West. However, like the Bloc, the Reform Party was quite successful in getting members elected to Parliament, albeit never enough to form a government. Taken together, these two parties had the effect of cementing the Liberal Party as the typical party of government in Canada. In an effort to have a greater electoral impact in Canada, the Reform Party forged the Canadian Alliance with elements from the Progressive Conservative Party.

Member of Parliament and Alliance leader Stephen Harper led his party to an outright merger with the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003. Three years later, Harper led the Conservative Party to win a plurality of seats in parliament. Harper became Prime Minister in a minority government which depended on cooperation from members of other parties. This situation was repeated in 2008 when Canadians went to the polls. Thus, earlier this year, the Liberal Party set forth to bring about fresh elections. Harper’s premiership had been a rocky one, and was marked by increasingly bitter partisan divides. A motion of no confidence was proposed by the leader of the official opposition, Michael Ignatieff of the Liberal Party, and it passed. Harper then went to the Governor-General of Canada to have Parliament dissolved and an election scheduled.

The May 2nd election was proceeded by a month-long campaign, including two televised debates, one each in the two official languages of Canada. Each party employed different strategies during the campaign. The Conservatives focused on bread and butter issues, fiscal discipline, and sought to appeal to new Canadians, the naturalized immigrant community concentrated in large cities and suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party campaigned leftward, arguing that the recovery from the global recession required greater government intervention. Part of this strategy was aimed at appealing to voters otherwise oriented towards the NDP who, under Jack Layton, were growing in popularity. During the campaign, Jack Layton sought to appeal to Quebec voters as part of a broader strategy to sell aboriginal and minority Canadians on his message. In Quebec, the Bloc ran on the theme of neglect of the province by the Harper government.

Many polls had anticipated a close race and the possibility of yet another hung parliament, but in the closing days prior to the vote, polls pointed to a surge in NDP support, particularly in Quebec. This surge has been credited with persuading right-leaning Liberal Party supporters to vote for Conservative candidates in order to head off a Jack Layton premiership. Whatever the motivation of the voters, Harper got his majority, and Layton redefined the position of the NDP in the Canadian landscape.

The real challenges lie ahead. Needing 155 seats to form and sustain a majority government, Harper’s Conservatives garnered 167, up from 143 before this election. Despite this victory, several members of Harper’s cabinet lost their seats, including one to Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Jack Layton delivered for his NDP the best results in the history of his party, garnering 102 seats up from 36.

The challenges facing Layton are twofold; first, he must present himself as a credible alternative PM in the minds of Canadian voters. Second, however, he has to integrate into the party fold scores of new MPs of various backgrounds, including numerous younger or novice candidates, particularly women from Quebec. The leaders of the Liberal Party and the Bloc both lost their seats in parliament, and their parties took a beating, being reduced to 34 seats and 4 seats, respectively.