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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Canada Reluctantly Goes Right

Canada’s national election yesterday went pretty much as forecasted: the Conservatives won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, and will get to form a minority government under Stephen Harper. But it’s reasonably clear Canadians were casting votes to expel the current scandal-plagued Liberal government of Paul Martin rather than to give the Tories any real mandate to move the country to the Right. Minority governments in Canada don’t tend to last very long, and moreover, even those Tory governments who have won strong majorities in recent decades have typically gone belly-up after short holds on power. Aside from public ambivalence about the Tories, Harper will have to deal with a House of Commons where the balance of power is held by the left-labor New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which is well to the left of center on most domestic and foreign policy issues. Despite making gains and punishing its ancient Liberal enemies, the BQ actually had a disappointing election, falling far short of the 50 percent vote in Quebec it had publicly set as its goal. And the NDP, which slightly boosted its share of the total vote from 15.7 percent to 17 percent, still wound up with only 29 seats in the House, as compared with 124 for the Tories, 103 for the Liberals, and 51 for the Bloc. So while it’s easy to identify the loser in yesterday’s elections, the ultimate winner is anybody’s guess. Martin quickly resigned as Liberal leader, and aside from Harper’s behavior as a P.M. without a majority or a mandate, the Grits‘ ability to regroup under new and uncertain leadership is the key political variable Up North. The most jarring difference between contemporary Canadian andU.S. politics is the restrained tone of the former, even in a campaign considered “bitter” by Canadian standards. Martin’s much-derided campaign for survival depended heavily on negative ads warning Canadians of the Tory boogeyman and its Republican friends in Washington (motivated in part by a largely unsuccessful drive to get NDP supporters to engage in “strategic voting” for the Grits in closely competed contests). It did not go over well.I got a personal taste of the low-key nature of Canadian politics yesterday afternoon, when I picked up a Toronto AM radio station while driving up I-95 from Richmond. NDP Leader Jack Layton was being interviewed; he sounded sort of like a decaffeinated Dick Gephardt–bland, wonky and very civil, particularly for a guy whose election-day objective was to shore up the “base” of the country’s most firmly ideological party.The aspect of yesterday’s vote that might well have parallel implications here in the U.S. is obvious enough: the connection voters made between Liberal ethics scandals and that party’s entrenched status and smug sense of entitlement to power. And that’s why Republicans probably shouldn’t get much satisfaction from a temporary and minority government led by their “friends” in Ottawa. North and south of the border, voters can and will provide corrupt and bumbling incumbenets with an “accountability moment,” even if they harbor misgivings about the opposition. Word up, Karl.

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