Today, Canadians vote. In the last election, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) achieved a minority government (meaning the largest block in parliament without having a majority), their first victory since the disastrous election of 1993 when the Progressive Conservatives went from an outright majority to 2 seats.
Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s government, elected in February 2006, has been the longest serving minority government in the history of Canada. The basic dynamic has been that the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC, the centrist party whose supporters are primarily students, government employees, and big business), has been financially bankrupt and low in the polls. If they ever brought down the government, the subsequent elections would have been a disaster for them. So they abstained on every budget vote, spending vote, or issue of serious policy (taxes, Afghanistan, etc.) This has resulted in an election in which the LPC, the historic party of government is coming into this election very weak.
Polls coming into today look like about an 8-point lead for the CPC over the LPC. The polls suggest that the CPC will end up with about 130 of 308 seats, while the LPC will end up with around 80. This is down nearly 20 for the LPC. The Bloc Quebecois (the Quebec seperatists) are likely to get in the mid-50s. While this is not really progress for the CPC or Harper, this is a problem for the LPC.
Read on after the jump for details about what to watch tonight.
First, the rules are sometimes in the CPC’s favor because there are constituency elections and the left is split, while there is only one party on the right. The left is split between the LPC, the Greens, and a socialist New Democratic Party (backed by labor unions). To win a seat, the CPC candidate only needs a plurality. In many seats (ridings), if one of the parties on the left would drop out, it is likely that the left would win.
Second, the map is highly regionalized. It is looking like the CPC is going to clean up out west. It is possible that the LPC will lose every seat west of Ontario, the largest province, which means mostly losing seats in British Columbia. The west will be split between the CPC and the NDP. In Quebec, there is a 3-way race between the Bloc, the CPC, and the LPC, in that order. This is a historic shift, but it is likely that the CPC and the LPC will lose seats in Quebec regardless. In Ontario, the CPC is ahead of the LPC by a small number of points. The things to watch in Ontario are if the CPC wins any ridings in Toronto or if we pick up seats in “the 905”, a suburban area near Toronto. Finally, in Atlantic Canada (the English speaking provinces east of Quebec), it is unclear what will happen. There aren’t a lot of ridings, but the CPC could make some real progress. Tonight, you want to watch to see if the CPC does indeed clean up out west (meaning BC, because it will dominate the prairie provinces), how much it stops the bleeding in Quebec, how much we pick up in Ontario, and if we make any progress in the Atlantics.
Third, how Stephane Dion, the leader of the LPC, handles the loss. If the LPC loses badly, he will be under pressure to resign. There are not good procedural mechanisms for taking out the leader of the party in the LPC (much like the British Labour Party, which is aching to remove Gordon Brown).
Fourth, vote totals matter tonight. Going into this election, the LPC was several million in debt. After the election, each party gets approximately $1.75 per vote to replenish party coffers. The LPC probably had to spend $20-30m total in additional debt. If they have a low vote total, their funding problem can begin to be quite acute. The details of their constituencies and Canadian campaign finance law will make it very hard for the LPC to replenish their coffers to anything like an operative level. Meanwhile, the CPC has millions in the bank because they have learned direct mail techniques from American conservatives and online fundraising techniques from American liberals.
It is possible that something could pop tonight. There could be a last-minute swing to the LPC because of strategic voting. The Greens could decide that keeping the Tories out is more important than winning a seat in Parliament.
It is also possible that LPC voters may not turn out in Ontario. They don’t like Stephane Dion, the party leader from Quebec, who has a lot of trouble speaking English. This would likely be catastrophic for the LPC, perhaps beginning a process that would destroy it over time. This would result in a left-right style two-party system that could usher in a long period of conservative dominance. (because the left would stay split in Quebec, but the right-leaning parts of the LPC would break towards the CPC) This is a long-term strategic objective of both the NDP and the CPC.