Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Election in Canada

It seems somewhat trivial compared to what's going on in the Middle East and Japan, but for those interested, Canada's moving into another election.

It's a bit of an odd one, thanks to Canada's equally odd party system. It has four major parties (the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and Greens), a single member first-past the post electoral system, and a rather notoriously powerful executive branch leading to a sort of "winner take all" situation regarding the Prime Ministership. Unlike, say, the United Kingdom, where MPs generally have more say. Thanks to regionalism, you also have a lot of ridings (electoral districts) where the Conservatives and NDP fight it out, the NDP and Liberals fight it out, the Conservatives and Liberals fight it out, or all three at the same time. Add in a staunch nationalist (and quasi-separatist) party in Quebec called the Bloc Quebecois, and you have a recipe for continuous hung parliaments—which Canada has—and coalition governments.

Except there IS no coalition. That's the strange part. The Conservatives have ruled the country without a coalition for over five years now, simply by threatening the Liberals with another election every time a confidence vote—which would bring down the government—came up for a Parliamentary vote. The Conservatives have enough money to fight an election whenever they please, while the Liberals are a bit skint these days, so the Liberals tended to knuckle under. (Though, when pressed, the New Democrats have propped up the Conservatives as well.)

But what if a defeated government just led to a new government with the same Parliament? Certainly that CAN happen. It happens pretty much everywhere else with three-party-plus electoral systems. The UK, New Zealand, Australia, and of course Israel, Germany, Japan and the rest. Both the UK and Israel are run by parties that didn't win the plurality of seats. So why not Canada?

Remember that big pot of money the Conservatives have? That's why. After an attempt was made at changing governing parties back in 2008, they successfully used their huge war chest to demonize the very concept of a coalition in the minds of the Canadian public. Part of that was due to the presence of the aforementioned nationalist party, which is unpopular in the rest of Canada due to separatist leanings, but a lot of it is due to attacks on the very concepts itself.

So, now, the prevailing opinion in Canada (at least among the commentariat) is that the party with the plurality is the only one that should be allowed to try to form a government. Other arrangements aren't acceptable, and the leader of the Liberals, Michael Ignatieff, has ruled it out. Yet there's almost no hope that he'll get a majority of the seats, so he'll have to do something to coordinate with the other parties should he get a plurality. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, for his part, is claiming that the choice is between giving him a majority and a Liberal minority government; but even he can't necessarily hope for that. His numbers are strong now, but these are early days, and Ignatieff has successfully jettisoned a lot of the foreign policy adventurism and American apologism that made him such a problematic candidate in the past.

(I was no fan of "Iggy", and still have doubts, but he's certainly a better choice than the paranoid, autocratic, near-dictatorial Harper.)

This multi-party, first-past-the-post system also means that the lion's share of votes will be utterly wasted. Although some candidates win with a majority of votes, many win with a plurality; in either case opposition votes (in classic FPTP style) do absolutely nothing except sit there. So any plurality of seats may not even really be a plurality at all; Harper may be Prime Minister again with a "mandate" of a minority of seats held by people that each received a minority of votes.

It makes strategy difficult, too. Since each party is contending with all other parties in a variety of winner-take-all plurality battles in a country riven by regionalism, no single strategy will do. A strategy which would work in the Prairies for the Conservatives against the New Democrats may fall flat in Ontario against the Liberals. A Liberal strategy or policy that would be killer in inner Toronto against the NDP would be suicidal in battles against the Tories in ridings only about twenty miles away. The "also-rans" are always there bleeding off support and creating the possibility of candidates coming up the middle.

And in Quebec? Five parties contend there, the issues are totally different, the ideology is muddled at best, the separatist question looms over everything, and since the dominant language is different, communications are a whole different bag, too.

So, yeah, strange election. And likely to get stranger.

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