The Canadian Political Scene Is About To Be Turned On Its Head

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The year 2011 is shaping up to be a decisive, politically realigning time…for our country’s neighbour to the north and largest trading partner, Canada. In the country’s national election this Monday, their multi-party system is being shaken up dramatically by the sudden rise — and quite possible parliamentary victory — of their traditional third party, the left-wing New Democrats (NDP).

Direct comparisons between other countries’ political parties and the U.S. can often be overly simplistic. The Conservative Party in its modern right-wing form could be compared to the Republicans — but even that is not a perfect comparison, as for example they resist any attack that they would ever get rid of the country’s single-payer universal health care system. After that, it gets very complex.

The Liberal Party, the country’s traditionally dominant party and main progressive party, is in some ways similar to the span of much of the Democrats in the U.S., with the exception of its most left-leaning members. As for the NDP, imagine if the kind of U.S. Democrats who constitute the Congressional Progressive Caucus in Washington were in fact their own party — one with its own history and culture, its own strongholds and places they hope to win — and with no particular love for the Democrats, and sometimes splitting votes with them. And when it comes to the Bloc Quebecois, a group that presents some key problems, we will see how they defy direct comparisons entirely.

Recent polls show the NDP, aided by the personal popularity of its leader Jack Layton, catapulting into second place, pushing the comparatively more moderate Liberal Party into third. If NDP support continues to rise, it’s conceivable that Layton could ultimately become Prime Minister of the country with Liberal support, and as such put the incumbent Conservatives out of power.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is determined to win the prize that has eluded them — an actual majority of seats in Parliament. But if the current polls prove accurate, and the NDP broke through into a strong second place, that would place the country in a whole new territory.

But let’s take a step back and get a primer in Canadian politics.

Many of Canada’s national elections, particularly this one, often turn on the results in the province of Quebec — home to the country’s French-speaking minority, where nationalism and even secessionist movements have presented serious social challenges ever since Britain acquired the area after the French and Indian War in the 1760s.

The current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has governed for five years despite never actually winning a majority of districts in the country’s Parliament, a state of affairs known as a “minority government,” similar in many ways to divided government in this country. Harper is a very right-wing leader by Canadian standards, having for years openly admired American conservatism, and infamously saying many years ago during a period when he was out of politics: “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.”

Harper’s Conservatives helped organise the country itself in the 1860s, and governed from the centre-right almost continuously for 30 years. However, their political coalition soon collapsed after the death of long-time Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. After that, the 20th century turned into an era of Liberal dominance, with the Conservatives losing their hold on Quebec and rarely winning it back.

The Liberal Party, currently led by former journalist and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff (who has been attacked by the other parties for living outside of Canada for decades) has been until recently Canada’s traditional governing party. In the 20th century they held national office for a combined total of 69 years, interrupted only by brief periods of Conservative resurgence that were very often triggered by Liberal blunders and soon undone by the Conservatives’ own longstanding divisions.

Under Liberal Prime Ministers such as William Lyon MacKenzie King, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and others, the Liberals passed such measures as pensions for the elderly and universal health care — building the basic welfare state. They also saw to the official release of the country’s constitution from British law over to Canada itself, a written bill of rights, official bilingualism, and many other measures that Canadians take for granted. But things have gone very wrong for them in recent years.

The NDP are the traditional third party. Self-identifying as social democrats and a labour union-affiliated party since the 1960s, they were originally founded in the 1930s as the very radical socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a party that pledged itself to nothing less than the eradication of capitalism. Back in those days, the Liberals and Conservatives in the western provinces, where the CCF was founded and had its greatest strength, would actually put aside their national rivalries and form coalitions with each other in order to keep the CCF out. (That tradition continues to this day in the province of British Columbia, governed by a centre-right fusion party called the B.C. Liberals.)

The NDP has never governed at the national level, but has in fact held office on and off in several provinces, and has sometimes exercised national leverage over Liberal minority governments. In fact, the NDP claims as its own greatest accomplishment the establishment of the country’s single-payer health care system, which was originally created in Saskatchewan by the CCF/NDP Premier Tommy Douglas, the party’s iconic leader, before it was taken up several years later by the federal Liberals. (You might be familiar with Douglas’s grandson Kiefer Sutherland, who is a strong supporter of the party. Yes, Hollywood is so fake that in real life, Jack Bauer is really a Canadian socialist.)

Finally, there’s the Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec-only party that advocates for that province’s secession into an independent nation. While the party is also left-wing social democratic, the Bloc was actually founded as a breakaway of the Conservatives in the early 90s, when that party’s various provincial-rights factions disintegrated and the party split into three different sections, two of which later reunited into the current Conservative Party.

All this brings us to the current problem: The Bloc’s existence has not produced an independent Quebec, but it has destabilized Canada, by making it increasingly difficult for any party to win a majority of seats. The Liberals did so under Chretien in 1993, 1997 and 2000, aided in part by continued vote-splitting on the right and huge victories in the country’s largest province, Ontario. But then when the two conservative parties reunited and stopped splitting the vote, and dissatisfaction with the Liberals led left-wing support to grow for the NDP, Harper was able to win minority governments starting in 2006 — but still hasn’t won a majority of seats.

In fact, a crisis briefly occurred in late 2008, shortly after an election, when the three opposition parties nearly put together a Liberal-NDP coalition minority government, supported by the Bloc. In response, Harper successfully campaigned in the court of public opinion against the idea of any administration forming that would expressly rely on the support of secessionists — while also putting together an economic stimulus plan that would placate the Liberals — leading a sufficient number of Liberals (including their then-new leader, Ignatieff) to back away from the deal.

At the beginning of the current campaign, it was widely thought that the Conservatives were likely to win a majority, aided by continued vote-splitting among the Liberals and NDP. But instead, the NDP has surged ahead — particularly in Quebec, a place where the party was traditionally a non-player, and never even won a single seat until its first (and so far, only) breakthrough in a special election in 2007. And now, if current polls are to be believed, the NDP could clean out the Bloc, taking dozens of seats from them in a thorough defeat.

In short, it appears that for the moment, Quebec voters could be on the verge of trying a radical new approach, after previous allegiances to the Liberals, the Conservatives, or their own secessionists: Joining in with the country’s national left-wing party. In response, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe is giving a final, seemingly desperate plea to voters to not give up the ship of independence: “Choosing another strategy would mean accepting to be forever in the minority with the sad results we have had since the beginning of Canada.”

From Quebec, the surge has spread to other provinces and picked up in the national polls, with the NDP narrowly trailing the Conservatives and pushing the Liberals lower and lower. It is still probable that Harper’s Conservatives will win a plurality of the popular vote and districts in Parliament. But in a parliamentary system, it remains possible that a weakened Harper could fall to an opposition that no longer would have to rely on the Bloc in order to make a move against him.

And what, then, would happen to the NDP itself, and to the once-proud Liberal Party? Could the New Democrats successfully form a government, and move their left-wing base and members of parliament along with the necessary compromises of a minority situation? Could the Liberals, after running a campaign that has attacked Harper as an extreme right-winger who has to go — while also attacking Layton as too left-wing and full of big, unrealistic promises — accommodate themselves to becoming the third party for the first time in history?

Or, in the end, could Harper accomplish the same feat that he did after the 2008 election: When his back is against the wall, move hard against the other side, hit the right issues and forge some necessary policy compromises with the Liberals, and divide the opposition yet again?

This post originally appeared at TPM.