Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Whoa, Canada

While we in the U.S. were watching the aftermath of the death of a terrorist, Canadians went to the polls to elect a new Parliament. And they made some pretty astonishing changes at the ballot box.

Canadian voters have radically redrawn the country’s political landscape, handing the Conservative Party its long-sought majority in an election that decimated the Bloc Québécois and humbled the Liberals.

For the first time in history, the New Democratic Party will form the Official Opposition after an extraordinary breakthrough that propelled the party to more than 100 seats.

The extent of the transformation is startling. The Liberals now hold just four seats west of Guelph, Ont. The Conservatives, formerly shunned by Toronto voters, won nearly half of the seats in that city, twice as many as the Liberals.

The Bloc Québécois, which defined Quebec federal politics for two decades, no longer qualifies for official party status. And Green Party Leader Elizabeth May won the party’s first seat, and the right to a place in the next election’s debates.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe lost his seat and resigned. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lost his riding. Both defeated leaders were squeezed, like many of their candidates, between growth in Conservative support and Jack Layton’s surging New Democrats.

The night belonged to Stephen Harper, who put his party over the top after five years of minority government and becomes just the third Conservative leader since Confederation to win triple victories.


With almost all polls reporting, the Conservatives were elected in 167 ridings, and the NDP in 102, more than double its best historical tally. The Liberals were reduced to the lowest seat count in their history, elected in just 34 seats. The Bloc had just four.

“I’m leaving, but others will follow, until Quebec becomes a country,” Mr. Duceppe said.

Mr. Ignatieff said he did not plan to step down as Liberal leader, adding that “democracy teaches hard lessons.”

The next Parliament will return to the traditional shape of majority government, but it will be a very different House of Commons, with the Official Opposition well left of centre, the regional agenda of the Bloc largely excised, and the wild card of a Green MP.

For those of you unfamiliar with how parliamentary governments work, the party with the most seats in the House of Commons wins, and their party leader becomes prime minister. Candidates are elected in “ridings,” which is equivalent of a congressional district in the U.S. If we had a parliamentary system, John Boehner would be the prime minister and the head of the government. (Let that one sink in.)

The Conservatives — or Tories — needed 157 seats out of 303, and they exceeded that. There are times when a party doesn’t win an outright majority but has the most seats; that’s called a minority win, and that’s what Stephen Harper, the leader of the Tories, had when he called the election.

The definition of “conservative” in Canada is different than here in the U.S. A Tory there would be a liberal Republican or conservative Democrat here, on about the same philosophical level as Sen. Ben Nelson, the Democrat from Nebraska. So it’s not exactly the same as having the Tea Party take over the House here when Canadians elect a Conservative majority. The Liberals — and they’re not afraid of using that word — have been somewhat rudderless for a few years, and it’s apparent that the voters just got tired of them, choosing instead to elect the left-wing New Democrats in enough numbers to form the official opposition party, a status earned by coming in second.

So what does the election in Canada mean to us here in the U.S.? Well, I don’t think it’s going to change our relationship with the True North any more than our elections do, but it’s good to remember that 1) the United States isn’t the only country in North America, and 2) that the Canadians still have the remarkable capacity to surprise even themselves; I’ll bet there are a lot of them waking up this morning and wondering what the hell happened yesterday.