Conservatives kept at bay in Canada


Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a mosque opening earlier this year
Canadians gathered at the Queen’s Head Pub in Cambridge to watch the returns of their federal election

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a plurality of seats in Tuesday’s Canadian federal election – but failed to secure a hoped-for majority in parliament. The widely-expected result will most likely be a minority Conservative government, forcing Canada’s right wing to reach across the aisle and forge compromises with the opposition Liberals, the increasingly popular New Democratic Party (a social democratic party), and the regional Bloc Quebecois.

Harper’s failed gamble in this contest may have been to try to secure a Conservative majority by calling the third federal election in four years, but his more modest goal – to preempt a tidal wave of left-wing resurgence should Barack Obama ’91 capture the White House in November – appeared to have been achieved. The Conservatives even strengthened their plurality in parliament, earning 19 additional seats.

The Conservatives’ inability to reach a majority – still 10 seats away after Tuesday’s vote – was seen as a reflection of Canadians’ distrust of both major parties. The Liberals, in control of government through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, have been cast as scandal-prone. Their leader, former academic Stéphane Dion, was portrayed – with some success – as lacking both decisiveness and a comfortable command of English. In Tuesday’s contest, the party’s share of parliament declined dramatically as it lost over 25 seats nationwide. Much of its former support was gobbled by the rising star of the New Democrats.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, appeared poised to expand their agenda if granted a majority, perhaps putting even sacred cows such as abortion on the table. Canadians appeared more comfortable forcing Harper’s ministry to secure the assent of one of the leftist parties before passing their proposals into law. The Conservatives’ chances were also hurt by the onset of the global financial crisis, which undermined one of their strongest selling points, the state of the Canadian economy.

Economic concerns were particularly salient in populous Ontario, home of much of Canada’s manufacturing base, as well as the Toronto Stock Exchange. The Conservatives failed to make necessary inroads there and in Quebec, where early polls had made a good showing for the party seem possible. The Conservative Party relies on much of its support from the provinces of Western Canada, particularly prosperous Alberta, home to both Harper and an oil-rich economy. Alberta, which has earned the moniker “the Texas of the North,” has been reticent to share its mineral wealth with the rest of the country, earning the ire of eastern Canadian urbanites.

A social values gap may have also permeated the campaign. Quebecois chafed at Harper’s suggestion that artists were elites who lived off the government dole, and bristled at his tough penalty proposals for youth crime. Their distaste for the Prime Minister allowed many to overcome doubts about Dion, who began his career as a federal government ally against Quebec secessionism, making him unpopular in his French-speaking home province.

Beyond social and economic issues, the Canadian election might be remembered for being one of the nastiest in recent history. The Conservatives were reproached for running an ad depicting Dion being defecated on by a puffin – a tactic that appeared grotesquely childish. Mr. Harper was also called out on his apparent plagiarism of a speech delivered by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Dion’s unpopular plan for a carbon tax, meanwhile, was branded with a poorly chosen name – “the Green Shift” – that embroiled his party in an $8.5 million trademark infringement claim.

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