The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Canadian Spring

May 3, 2011

If Stephanie can blog about Canadian politics as an ex-pat who cannot vote because residing in the UK, why cannot I comment on the election as an American ex-pat who cannot vote despite residing in Quebec?  I am not an expert on Canadian politics, but, as my blog testifies, a lack of expertise has never stopped me before.  So, here are my thoughts on the second night of surprises this week.  I will explain the title later, but first consider the parties in turn and the historic outcome.

  1. The Tories failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  This was most out of character.  I guess Harper was right to limit the number of questions he would answer per day to five.  This is a horrible precedent to set, but really shows what a crappy job the other parties did of putting Harper on the defensive.  If they had pushed harder and been more creative/clever, then Harper would have had to speak more.   Instead, he didn’t have to worry.  He didn’t necessarily control the agenda during the campaign, but none of the other parties really did either.  
  2. The NDP came in second, which came to be expected towards the end of the campaign, but did far better than anyone had a right to expect.  What were the keys to success?
    1. Not being the Liberals or the Bloc.
    2. Jack Layton.  The most dynamic, interesting, and Prime Ministerial of the candidates (Harper included).
    3. Having Orange as their color finally paid off.  Sure, they could not build rhyming slogans around their color, but their opponents could not come up with nasty songs and rhymes either.  Good defensive color scheme.
    4. Building on a young group of McGill current and former students in Quebec.  Yes, four students (three current, one former) won seats in Parliament.  I had three of them in my classes (which is not hard since I teach a 600 student intro to IR class every fall).  I just hope one of them lands on foreign or defence committees.
    5. They effectively pandered.  They promised Quebeckers to open up the constitution, to respect a referendum without concern for its clarity (contrary to exiting law and Supreme Court rulings), and only posted signs in Quebec en francais. 
  3. The Liberals are so very toasted.  When your leader is described as Kerry-esque, that cannot be a good thing.  In so short of a time frame, the party went from dominating the political system election after election to a minority government to leading opposition to afterthought.  Why?  Well, the last two PM candidates have had zero charisma, the party is still paying the price for past scandals, and their party platform this time around focused almost solely on their not being the Tories.  Not a very positive program.  And the series of elections over the past several years apparently bankrupted them. 
  4. The Bloc?  Oh my.  From starting the campaign with dreams of having even more seats in the province and “proving” that the public favors sovereigntist parties down to two seats.  Hard to believe that the Bloc could do worse than the Liberals, but they did.  Why?  The argument has been that Quebeckers want strong representation in Ottawa to protect the province’s interests.  It was not surprising, too much, to see Liberal voters abandon their party and go to the NDP, apparently Quebeckers did not find the Bloc protection either effective or necessary (don’t really know which yet).  More on Quebec later today at my blog.

I think there are two big keys to this election:

  • First Past the Post can combine with four parties to produce funky outcomes.  That is, we are in part surprised because individuals had three to four real choices across the country.  So, they could walk in the ballot box and either hate the Tories and vote NDP or hate the Liberals and vote Tory (or NDP).  The electoral system is well known to exaggerate pluralities into majorities and worked to perfection here with the Conservatives getting 167 seats or so despite only getting 40% of the vote.  The other parties divided the rest of the vote and ended up getting 47% of the seats.
    • Electoral reform?  Um, ha!  Not going to happen when it benefits the big parties.  Funny that the Liberals now may favor it since they are a lesser party.
    • As one McGill grad student put it on his facebook page (not an NDP candidate), there is a certain inexorability about Duverger’s Law.  That is, First Past the Post tends to produce a two party system unless there is an ethnic group that is regionally concentrated (if I remember my Comparative Political Institutions class right).  With the Bloc being crushed, Canada is as close to a two party system as it has been in a long time. 
  • My reference to Canadian Spring.  A key dynamic in the Arab world as been the sudden realization of hidden preferences (a la Timur Kuran).  In each country, people did not protest or dissent that much until they saw others doing so, reducing the risks to themselves as they saw their preferred outcome now possible and perhaps even probably.  Well, in Canada, people had been voting strategically for years–for the Liberals to deny the Tories a majority, for the Bloc Quebecois to deny the Tories a majority and to give Quebec some influence in government.  But apparently not just Liberal voters were holding their collective noses.  The Bloc ones were as well.  So, the key turning point in this election was when the polls indicated that a NDP vote was not a wasted one.  Indeed, who do we have to blame for this election outcome?  Perhaps the pollsters for making it appear that the NDP had a chance.  Otherwise, people might have kept voting the old way, more or less.
    • To be clear, I certainly do not want to compare Harper to the democrats who have arisen to lead Egypt.  Oops, maybe that does work with the military still in charge there, as Harper shows very few democratic impulses.  He has over-centralized decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office, limited transparency (would it be better to say “increased opacity”?), and evaded what little parliamentary oversight there has been (not much to begin with, really).  
    • Funny that I saw lots of effort by my Progressive friends to encourage strategic voting–figure out which person in your riding had the best chance to defeat the Tory candidate–to prevent a Conservative Majority.  It failed miserably. Maybe one should let people strategically vote by themselves?

We are in for some interesting times (well, interesting to and for Canadians).  Phil Lagasse has kicked off his new blog with his thoughts on what it means for defence policy.  I will have to think more about it since I blogged mostly about what would happen if the NDP/Liberals formed a coalition.

Like the experts, this amateur (that is, me) expected a Conservative Minority government with little significant changes.  Nice to know I can be dramatically wrong.  Oh, I get evidence of that every day?  Never mind.

website | + posts

Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.