03 May 2011

Canadian election produces sea change in partisan landscape

Election results from the 2011 election in Canada for its 308 seat federal parliament dramatically changed the partisan landscape there.

Voters in ridings previously held by the Bloc Québécois defected en masse to the New Democratic Party, while about half the seats previously held by the Liberal party were split between the Conservative Party and the NDP.

The Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper increased its number of seats from 143 to 167, giving its a majority (which required 155 seats) with a certain amount of cushion against intraparty dissent. In the most recent parliament, the Conservative party has led parliament with a minority government in the absence of a firm multi-party coalition after both the 2006 and 2008 elections, and has been forced to seek support from other parties for legislation on a case by case basis. It won 39.6% of the popular vote. It picked up 26 seats from Liberal MPs, 2 from NDP MPs and one from an independent MP. The Conservative Party is dominant in the Prairie provinces of Alberta (27/28 seats), Saskatchewan (13/14 seats) and Manitoba (11/14 seats) where it commanded popular vote majorities. It also won 73/106 seats in Ontario, 21/36 seats in British Columbia, and 8/10 seats in New Brunswick, as well as the only seat for the Yukon and the only seat for Nunavut.

The modern Conservative Party in Canada is the product of a merger of the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party), which was stronger in the West, and Progressive Conservative party, which was stronger in the East, in 2003. While the Conservative Party is the farthest political party to the political right in Canada, and favors favours lower taxes, smaller government, more decentralization of federal government powers to the provinces, a tougher stand on "law and order" issues, and a more active role in foreign military operations than the other parties, it is still considerably more socially liberal than the American Republican party, for example, supporting civil unions for same sex couples, even though it does not support gay marriage. It might be compared to New England's Republicans in the American political spectrum.

The New Democrat party led by Jack Layton, a party of the left that previously held just 36 seats in parliament, became the leading opposition party with 102 seats and 30.6% of the popular vote. The NDP surrender two seats to the Conservative Party, while picking up six seats from the Conservative Party and one from an independent MP. Before the election, the center of mass in the NDP was in Ontario, now it is Francophone with a majority of its MPs hailing from Quebec. The NDP is a social-democratic successor to the Labour party in Canada and roughly corresponds in its political views to that of the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party in the United States.

The Liberal party led by Michael Ignatieff (who was defeated in his riding and resigned as party leader), a center-left party that has either governed (for 69 years of the 20th century) or been the leading opposition party in Canada for as long as anyone can remember went from holding 77 seats as the second largest political party to just 34, garnering 18.9% of the popular vote. Twenty-three of the seats it lost were picked up by the Conservative Party, while 17 were picked up by the New Democrats. Politically, the Liberal party roughly corresponds to the Democratic Party in the United States without its progressive caucus. Generally speaking, the Liberals are stronger relative to the NDP in the Maritimes, while the NDP is stronger relative to the Liverals in the West, and the two are evenly matched in Ontario.

The New Democrats and Liberals put forward a candidate in every seat, and the Conservative put forward a candidate in all but one of the ridings.

The nationalist Bloc Québécois under the leadership of Gilles Duceppe (who was defeated in his riding and resigned as party leader) was crushed, going from holding 49 seats following the 2008 election to holding just 4 seats (it contested 75 seats) and winning 6.0% of the popular vote (and less than a quarter of the popular vote in Quebec). At least 44 of the seats lost by the Bloc were picked up by the New Democrats. Quebec is now represented in Canada's federal parliament by 58 NDP representatives, 7 Liberals, 6 Conservatives, and 4 Bloc members (who no longer hold official party status). Historically, the Bloc has been a big tent on the liberal-conservative spectrum within the general boundaries of mainstream political stances in Canada. It isn't clear from where I stand if the mass defection of Bloc voters to the NDP is a one time blip over some recent political misstep, or a long run death knell for the federal wing of the Quebec nationalist movement.

The Green Party, whose party leader is Elizabeth May, which held no seats after the 2008 election (or in any prior one) won one seat in parliament (Elizabeth May in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, in British Columbia) and garnered 3.9% of the popular vote (a decline from 6.8% in 2008). The Green Party contested all but four of the seats. The seat won by the Green Party was previously held by a Conservative Party MP. It's agenda is similar to that of the American Green Party.

Independents and unaffiliated candiates held two seats after the 2008 election, but won none in 2011. Sixty-one independent and unaffiliated candidates and thirteen minor parties also sought seats in the Canadian federal parliament without success. None of the minor parties won more than 0.1% of the popular vote.

Canada is to the left politically of the United States. About sixty percent of Canadians vote for political parties to the left of the Canadian Conservative Party, despite is majority victory due to the partisan divisions on the Canadian left, and it is itself to the left of the American Republican party. The median MP in the Canadian parliament is roughly comparable in politics to a Blue Dog Democrat.

Note that while parties of the left and center-left won a majority of the popular vote, that the conservative party was able to win a majority of the seats in parliament, because the political left split the vote among multiple candidates while the political right did not to nearly the same extent. This was particularly a factor in Ontario where the NDP and Liberal Party received almost equal shares of the popular vote, and combined received a majority of the popular vote, but received only about a quarter of the total number of MP seats contested in the election.

After many decades of having multiple viable political parties, the 2011 election seems to portend a shift to what might become a two party system in Canada, similar to that of the United States with a similar electoral system. The NDP and Liberal party will be under strong pressure in the wake of the 2011 to follow the lead of the parties of the right in Canada in 2003 and merge. A merged NDP and Liberal party would have easily won a majority of the seats in parliament in the 2011 election.

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