In the coming week, the Canadian House of Commons will reconvene after the suspension sought by sitting Prime Minister Stephen Harper and granted by the Governor General in early December. This turn of events took place as the Conservative minority government was on the brink of a no confidence vote that would have led to its replacement by one formed by the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, with the external support of the Bloc Québécois.
On Tuesday, Harper will submit to the House a budget which, for the first time in many years will post a deficit, prompted by the dire, adverse economic conditions that Canada, much like the rest of the world, will be experiencing for the foreseeable future. Details of the budget are still scant; Harper will allegedly call for permanent tax cuts, together with various spending initiatives. Of course, the question in the mind of Canadians is: will the opposition give Harper green light, albeit begrudgingly ? Will Harper be allowed to continue on as a Prime Minister, or is Canada going to be led by a different leader eight days from now ?
It may be useful to remind ourselves of how we got to the current situation. On November 27, the Conservative government released an annual update, surprisingly forecasting a budget surplus (a tiny one to be sure, but surplus nonetheless) in the next fiscal year. This came at a time when most western countries (most prominently the USA), had long accepted the notion that, in order to provide stimulus to their flagging economies, deficit spending would be not just opportune, but urgent. That statement from the executive elicited the outrage of all opposition leaders, who took it as evidence of the inability of Harper and his cabinet to appreciate to its full extent the seriousness of the situation, and thus to provide effective leadership for the country. In a matter of a few hours, after some frantic meetings held between the leaders of the opposition parties, a plan emerged to topple Harper’s government, and establish a coalition government. That plan did not pan out though, as legislative activity was brought to a halt, to resume this week.
What next ? It’s difficult to imagine how this will play out. Several scenarios seem possible, but some look less plausible than others.
1) Harper puts out his budget, and the opposition does not change its stand. Harper’s government is brought down by a confidence vote, and the Governor General decides not to explore any alternate option, sending the country back to the polls, less than four months after the last general election.
This seems exceedingly unlikely. It is not just the fact that Canadians do not want to go back to the polls, at a time when a stable government is needed to take immediate action on the economic front. It is simply inconceivable for a country to keep on voting every six months, as long as elections yield a divided legislature with no single party garnering an outright majority of seats (enabling it in turn to form a government that opposition can not bring down). Parties simply need to work together and find a compromise, and that requires that each leader pragmatically abandon positions that are ideologically too rigid, showing instead respect for, and willingness to accept some of the requests of the other parties — in a minority legislature, no party can claim to represent the majority of voters, by definition.
Moreover, from a merely strategic standpoint none of the four main parties is, in my opinion, eager to go back to the polls so soon. The Conservative party may be regarded as the best positioned, as Harper could make to the voters a simple case: “My fellow Canadians, you gave me a relative majority, and I tried governing. The opposition did not let me — they simply did not want me to enact my program, hence this new vote. If you want to stop this charade, give me a majority and let me get back to work for you.” Compelling as this argument may sound, I do not think Harper is going to want to find himself in that position.
Harper’s chances of obtaining an outright majority were arguably as good as they will ever be last October. In all likelihood, next time Canadians head to the polls the Conservatives will suffer setbacks, not make further inroads. The main reason why their majority became stronger last October, is almost certainly the fact that many liberal voters deserted the polls. These Canadians, dissatisfied with their party and its leader (at the time), did not feel comfortable voting for Harper and the Conservatives, nor did most of them give their vote to any of the other parties. I doubt very much if they will next time around. The Liberals have now a new leader, a high profile intellectual who enjoys a reasonable standing not only among Liberal voters, but also among the general public. He may well prove much more effective a politician and a campaigner than his predecessor. Polls are indeed already showing the Liberals as closing the gap with the Conservatives.
Of course, Harper may feel that time will be on Ignatieff’s side; his rival may skillfully exploit the comfortable role of opposition leader, strengthen his position and then pick the most convenient time to bring down the Conservative government with a no confidence vote. Still I do not believe that Harper is eager to see an election called, at this point, even if this ends up resulting into a bigger win for the Liberals when the next election is eventually held. The same can be said about the NDP and the Bloc. Both are likely to lose seats to the advantage of the Liberals, and will not rush the country to the polls.
Another federal election now would most likely yield a House of Commons similar to the one that existed before October 2008, possibly (by no means certainly) with a slim Conservative minority (numerically weaker than the current one) and again, with the coalition government as the most obvious outcome.
2) Same as above, but with new coalition government headed by Ignatieff.
This may actually be preferable to Harper than the first scenario, as well as the third one (below) where he stays on as a weakened Prime Minister. The coalition option has not been particularly popular among voters, but over the holidays Canadians seem to have warmed up a bit to it. This is the outcome that I personally favor, because it sets an important precedent, namely that in a minority legislature the party of relative majority is not entitled, has no supreme right to form a government. It may make sense to give its leader a chance to form it, but this person must be able to generate bipartisan consensus. Harper has so far not proven able to do that.
If a coalition government is formed, Harper will likely continue to call this move “illegitimate” (of course, he’s dead wrong), in hope that Canadians will see him as the victim of an unfair political machination on the part of the opposition, and try to “right a wrong” at the next election. Honestly, this may be Harper’s best chance to stay politically afloat. Admittedly, it’s not a very good one…
3)Harper puts out his budget, and Ignatieff decides not to topple his government yet.
I predict that this is what is going to happen. Harper’s budget will probably fall short of gaining the approval of the Bloc and of the NDP. On the other hand, I predict that Ignatieff will in the end decide to prop Harper for the time being, in the name of providing a government for the country at a time when it badly needs it. He may have harsh words for the budget and express publicly his reservations with the current government, but I do not believe that he will pursue the coalition route at this time. The votes of the Liberals suffice to keep Harper’s government alive, if the Liberals decide not to join the NDP and the Bloc in their no-confidence vote.
In this scenario, Harper stays on as a greatly weakened PM, predictably after making major concessions to the Liberals in the budget, and essentially hanging by a thread until Ignatieff (who will spend the next months making his case to Canadians and looking “Prime-Ministerial”) decides to pull the plug and face his first election as the Liberal leader (an election that he shall then probably win decisively).
As for Harper, I don’t see him remaining as the Conservative leader for long. Perhaps something I cannot presently think of will happen, which will give him an unexpected life line, some renewed political capital. Barring that, I see his parabola as inexorably descending if any of the above three scenarios materializes.