Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Election a watershed in Canadian politics

Conservatives solidify power, secessionists trounced


Prime Minister Stephen Harper now has the support he sought in three previous votes.


OTTAWA, Ont. -- After an unpredictable campaign, Canada has suddenly and decisively reshaped its politics in a way few thought possible when the federal election was called in March.

In a country that has weathered the international economic malaise better than almost any other industrialized nation, Canadians rewarded their five-year-old government with a solid mandate that enhances its hopes of establishing a new conservative ascendancy in Canada.

At the same time, in the biggest political realignment here since 1993, Canadians radically reordered the opposition, which will try to contain the Conservatives in Parliament.

They also catapulted a minor party to the forefront of national politics, punished what was once the country's "natural governing party," and wiped out the secessionist party, which had consistently won most of the seats in the province of Quebec in elections over the last 18 years.

And, for good measure, they elected the country's first representative of the Green Party.

All told, it makes this election a watershed in the history of Canada.

When the votes were counted on Monday, Canadians gave the right-of-centre Conservatives 167 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. With a majority in his grasp, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can finally govern without having to confer with the opposition parties, a freedom he has coveted since he first came to power in 2006.

A majority government is a vote of confidence for the dour, taciturn Mr. Harper, who celebrated his 52nd birthday during the campaign. It was a license he had been denied in elections in 2004, 2006, and 2008. A return to majority government ends seven years of minority government, the longest in Canada's experience. The imbalance was blamed for a fractious, dysfunctional Parliament.

At the same time, voters gave the left-of-center New Democratic Party 30 percent of the vote and 102 seats, most of them from Quebec.

This makes the New Democrats the official opposition -- the government-in-waiting -- for the first time since the party's founding in 1961. When the election was called, the New Democrats had 37 seats.

More telling, voters devastated the centrist Liberals, who have governed Canada for most of its 144 years, with a mix of social reform and economic prudence popular in urban, central Canada.

The Liberals were in power until 2006 but their share of the popular vote has fallen in every election since 2000. On Monday, they won just 19 per cent of the vote and 34 seats, their worst showing ever.

Lastly, Quebec voters virtually wiped out the Bloc Quebecois, whose raison d'etre in Parliament was to make Quebec an independent country. They won four seats in Quebec, a loss of 43 seats.

Such was the deluge that both Michael Ignatieff, who had led the Liberals since 2009, and Gilles Duceppe, who had led the Bloc Quebecois since 1993, lost their seats and resigned as party leaders.

It showed, once again, how quickly things can change in national politics.

What does it mean for Canada for the next four years?

For the Conservatives, it offers freedom to govern. In Canada, a prime minister with a majority has unfettered power to call elections, appoint senators and high court judges, and to pass legislation.

Curiously, Mr. Harper spent little time in the campaign discussing what the Conservatives would do with a majority, other than reducing Canada's relatively small deficit, lowering corporate taxes, buying expensive fighter jets, and safeguarding comprehensive, universal health care, which, unlike in the United States, is much cherished in Canada.

While Mr. Harper, an economist from Alberta noted for his commitment to fiscal prudence and small government, was said to have "a secret agenda" that he would pursue with a majority, he denies that.

However, his harshest critics say that he will slash the civil service, privatize public companies like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, introduce more private health care, and transfer powers from the center to the provinces, in what is already the most decentralized country in the world. Some say he wants to restore the death penalty.

For the New Democrats, it is an opportunity to prepare to become government, a proximity to power they have never enjoyed before. Becoming official opposition raises their stature and assures them of new resources.

What is most significant is their new popularity in Quebec, where they went from one member to 58.

Their success there was so unexpected that some of their new representatives are political neophytes -- one is a young bartender who didn't live in her district, doesn't speak French, and was said to have spent much of the campaign in Las Vegas.

Ironically, though the NDP has almost three times as many members as before the election, it will have less influence than it had in March, when it won concessions from a government that needed its support to stay in power.

For the Liberals, the election is an unmitigated disaster.

Unlike defeats in the past, this one calls into question the very existence of the party that has been led by the country's most distinguished figures, including prime ministers Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and has shaped modern, progressive Canada.

As the third party in the House of Commons, philosophically squeezed between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, both of which will try to poach its supporters, the Liberals find themselves without a base, an identity, and money. Indeed, some observers are comparing Canada's Liberal Party to the British Liberal Party, which was largely absorbed by the British Labor Party and disappeared in 1988.

One small surprise was the election of Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, in a tidewater district in British Columbia.

The flamboyant, affable Ms. May upset a sitting cabinet minister and promises to champion the environment when she takes her seat later this spring in a much-changed House of Commons in a different Canada.

Andrew Cohen is an author, syndicated columnist, and professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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