A Realigning Canadian Election?

This is another guest post from Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia.  See also his earlier post.

Contrary to all expectations, the Canada’s 41st general election has produced a realignment, or at least set the stage for one. The most dramatic change was foreshadowed by late polls: a New Democratic Party vote share over 30%, 100+ seats, and Official Opposition status. The Conservative party won an outright majority of seats, on a vote share just under 40%. For the first time in the country’s history, the party system divides clearly between left and right. The centrist Liberal party is now a weak in parliament and the Bloc Québécois has been virtually eliminated.  In a sense, then, Canada has joined the mainstream.
Getting to the mainstream required some peculiar shifts, and it is premature to claim that we understand them. Indeed they constitute a research agenda, not just for Canadian academics. The fact that so many of the shifts occurred during the campaign means that we should be able to uncover the mechanisms in play, especially when the 2011 Canadian Election Study data become available. Here are some questions.
The dynamic force in the election was Quebec. Essentially all of the NDP’s early gains were in Quebec. The party’s gains began with the leaders’ debate in French on April 13. The debate featured no obvious moment but did seem to signal to Quebec voters NDP leader Jack Layton’s comfort with the language and politics of the province. But he was not new to national politics and it is not immediately obvious why this should have resonated only in 2011. Most of what is on offer are just-so stories. In any case, the debate required amplification by post-debate coverage, so we have an opportunity to unpack all the elements. These are likely to include expectations, something the CES tracks.
Early gains in Quebec were powerful enough to register as nontrivial shifts in national polls. It is doubtful that voters outside Quebec grasped how specific to that province the early gains were, but this too is an empirical question. In any case, NDP gains outside Quebec seemed to follow those inside the province, and expectations were probably relevant. But expectations for what and in relation to what? It is reasonable to conjecture that much of the logic was strategic, as the NDP and the Liberal party were engaged in a struggle to control the anti-Conservative pole. This does not mean that the volume of second-choice voting went up; it may even have gone down, as persons who all along really preferred the NDP concluded that expressing that preference was no longer a waste of time. But if strategic cognition was in play, the net effect was perverse. Almost all the Conservative seat gains occurred in Ontario; the party lost seats in Quebec and BC and there were no more seats for it to gain in the Prairie Provinces. A critical factor in those Ontario gains were relatively even splits between the NDP and the Liberals. The Liberals started as the strategically privileged party, and inroads into their vote made no tactical sense, at least in the short term.
Perhaps expectation-driven shifts to the NDP were a bandwagon. This is not good news to a serious scholar’s ears. More satisfying is the motivational language of strategic voting, even if the outcome goes astray. But there is evidence that voters in Quebec respond as a bandwagon, reflecting their emphasis on that province’s collective standing in the federation. Again, this is an empirical question, as is the relative power of bandwagon and strategic motives in the rest of the country.
Strategic motives may also have been in play on the right side of the street. Taken all together, late polls slightly underestimated the Conservative vote. If there was a late shift to the party, it probably came from persons on the right side of the Liberal base, for whom the NDP was unacceptable.
Whether or not their actions were wise in the short run, I suspect that desertion from the Liberal party’s right and left flanks is irreversible. For it was the very strength of the Liberal Party that made the Canadian party system so anomalous. Not only was that domination itself strange, but it induced other peculiarities: boom and bust for the Conservative party; three-party competition at the district level; the system’s weak class basis and strong cultural one. What features do the persistence and ultimate decline of its dominant, centrist party share with changes in other such regimes, Mexico and Ireland, to name two?


One Response to A Realigning Canadian Election?

  1. Harold Clarke June 15, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Precisely because the NDP surge was so strongly Quebec-based, I do not see it as a harbinger of realignment. What would be the bottom-up motor for that? Class politics? That has been the standard answer since Dick and I were undergrads. The question posed by our Oxbridge and occasionaly LSE-trained professors was not whether the Liberals would be pulled apart, but why it hasn’t happened already. After all, class conflict is the motor of political change in all industrial societies, or so it was believed. The NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, has been waiting a looong time (since the 1930s) for this to happen. I see no evidence that this is what was going on in 2011. The NDP’s surge was very much endogenous to the campaign – a product of inchoate protest and terminal boredom. To be sure, the Liberals are in trouble, and will be as long as they insist on choosing arrogant ex-pat Harvard profs (are there other kinds?) as their leader (Ignatieff really was ‘just visiting.’)
    To be sure the Liberals are in trouble – their party id share is only 18% in the 2011 Political Support in Canada post-election survey. But, hey, the NDP has its own problems. It’s caucus looks like something from an SNL skit or, better in the Canadian context, something Rick Mercer would dream up. Some don’t even speak French and had to be given GPS devices to find their ridings. Perhaps the NDP can construct a durable coalition of ‘working Canadians,’ (a favorite NDP phrase), Quebeckers tired of Gilles Duceppe (who isn’t?), asorted post-modernists (wouldn’t want ’em any other way), and miscellaneous Greens (at least those who haven’t heard of Elizabeth May). But, I wouldn’t hold my breath.