“The difference between theorists and experimentalists can be summed up as follows:
experimentalists observe what nobody can explain, theorists explain what nobody can observe”
My prediction that in the newly elected Canadian House of Commons there would be no difference greater than ten seats for any of the four major parties missed the mark. Oh, well.
According to unofficial results, the Conservative Party has gained 19 seats (going from 124 to 143) with respect to the last general election, whereas the Liberals lost 27 (from 103 to 76). My predictions were accurate for the New Democratic Party (NDP), which posted an 8-seat gain (from 29 to 37), for the Bloc Québécois (from 51 to 50) and for the Green Party, which, predictably, did not elect a single representative, much like in 2006.
What lesson should be drawn ? That Canada is indeed ideologically drifting to the right, as alleged a few weeks ago by Conservative leader Stephen Harper, widely expected to retain his position of Prime Minister ? That the Liberal Party is bleeding consensus to the benefit of the Conservatives on the right, and to a lesser extent of the NDP on the left ?
I am not convinced by the above arguments. By looking at the numbers, and by comparing them with those from 2006, besides the obvious fact that the Liberals are struggling at the present time, I see more than one reason for both Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton to be worried about yesterday’s results. It is actually far from clear whether the country has moved anywhere over the past two years. This is scarcely surprising, in many respects, and suggests that this election may well be remembered, above all, for its untimeliness.
First of all, the raw numbers (I do not know of any other starting point):
|Party||Votes in 2008 (%)1||Votes in 2006 (%)2|
|Conservatives||5,205,334 (37.6)||5,374,071 (36.3)|
|Liberals||3,629,990 (26.2)||4,479,415 (30.2)|
|NDP||2,517,075 (18.2)||2,589,597 (17.4)|
|BQ||1,379,565 (10.0)||1,553,201 (10.5)|
|Green||940,747 (6.8)||664,068 (4.5)|
|Others||160261 (1.1)||185328 (1.2)|
|Total||13,832,972 (59.1)||14,845,680 (64.7)|
The first, immediate observation is the low voter turnout (actually the lowest in Canada’s history). Almost one million fewer eligible voters exercised their constitutional right yesterday than they did in 2006, certainly suggesting both lack of interest and possibly annoyance with the election . As a result, the four major parties all suffered an overall decline in the number of votes, including the Conservative Party (albeit obviously not to the same extent as the Liberals). The only party that has significantly increased the number of votes nationally (by approximately 50%) is the Green Party, even though, as mentioned above, that failed to translate into a single seat .
Thus, by and large the parties that did well in this election (in terms of seats) did not so much succeed at attracting new votes, as much as at retaining the ones that they already had. In other words, those who voted for the Conservative Party two years ago confirmed their choice yesterday, and those who did not by and large have not changed their mind after two years of Conservative government. Indeed, for all the talk I heard last night from (rightfully) jubilant Conservative strategists, their claim that the party is making inroads among segments of the population that had not traditionally favored it seems baseless .
Similar considerations apply to the NDP which, in spite of the difficult moment of the Liberals, has failed to make any progress whatsoever in terms of national consensus. Actually, my impression is that both the Conservatives and the NDP may have reached a plateau, as neither is ostensibly attracting the bulk of dissatisfied Liberal voters.
Based on the data in the above table it is clear that, among the four main parties, the Liberal is the one that suffered the greatest hemorrhage of votes — some 850,000, with the ensuing loss of almost 30 seats in the House; but where did these votes go ?
Well, the data are pretty clear: neither to the Conservatives, nor to the NDP. A good fraction (some 300,000) seem to have gone to the Green party, in many a riding crucially contributing to the election of Conservative, not Green Party representatives, because of the way the first-past-the-post electoral system works (I know it seems incredible, but a “vote for the environment” has pretty much worked as a vote against the environment, in this election). But by and large, Liberal voters dissatisfied with their party simply opted out of this election. Indeed, the one “party” that can boast the greatest advance (over one million “votes”), and solidly remains the most popular by far in Canada, is that of those who do not show up at the polling station.
The above analysis, if accurate, is a clear, direct indictment of the current Liberal leadership, the true losers of this election. Bad campaign, wrong game plan, ineffectiveness at communicating clearly their message. I say they need to go, immediately.
However, I do not see much over which to rejoice for Harper either. He failed at his stated goal of obtaining an outright majority, and I doubt if next time around the situation will be as favorable for him as it was this time. He is now back to being the head of a minority government, the same condition that had prompted him to call for an election in the first place (I doubt very much if he would have done that, had he foreseen such an outcome). He may have a few more friends in the House, but still not a majority, and cannot demand that another election be held in twelve months — I am not sure if he is so much stronger now than last month, especially in light of the tough economic times ahead.
What about the NDP ? Well… what about them, indeed. I confess that I am a bit at a loss trying to figure out their leader’s strategy (if any). If Jack Layton seriously thought that the outcome of this election could be for him to be the next Prime Minister, then I am sorry but the man is delusional. I continue to believe that it was a disgraceful move on his part to pull the plug on the government of Paul Martin, from whom he had managed to obtain significant concessions, mostly advancing the type of progressive causes about which NDP voters care. Many of us hold Layton largely responsible for putting the Conservatives in power in the first place, and in many respects for helping them consolidate their grip to power, thanks to vote splitting. That a handful more representatives (with no real chance of influencing significantly the legislative or executive agenda) should compensate for a House dominated by the Conservatives, seems an odd notion for a self-proclaimed “progressive”. As a progressive and NDP sympathizer myself, I could sincerely not care less about those eight extra seats; for Layton to declare himself “satisfied” by this outcome, again points to some serious disconnect with reality.
I think that the time is ripe for a change of leadership here too, frankly. It actually appears as though there is no margin for improvement under the current one. The manifest failure of the NDP to provide a convincing alternative to discontented Liberal voters is clearly worrisome. Also, the very growth of the Green Party (measured in sheer number of votes) speaks volumes about the scarce credibility on the environment (arguably one of the most pressing progressive issues of our times) attributed to the NDP by progressive voters.
As for the Green Party, I hate to say that and I know that I shall take some flak, but I think that, as long as the electoral system is what it is, their presence can only do harm to their own cause.
 It is noteworthy that turnout in 2006 was significantly higher even though the election was held in January, i.e., in several parts of the country going to the polls meant braving cold temperatures.
 In order to appreciate the unfairness of it all, and how badly the electoral system in Canada needs to be reformed, one need only imagine that, as a result of the first-past-the-post mechanism, while the almost one million electors who voted for the Green Party will go unrepresented, 2 independents have been elected to the House of Commons, representing, between the two of them, fewer than a hundred thousand voters.
Just for fun, this is what the House would look like if a proportional representation system were in place (in parentheses the seats actually assigned under the existing system):
Conservatives 118 (143)
Liberals 83 (76)
NDP 57 (37)
BQ 32 (50)
Green 21 (0)
Others 4 (2)
Would this be so bad ? Would a House with such a complexion be so much more dysfunctional than the current one ?
 The main reasons why the Tories have 19 extra seats compared to 2006 are, in my view, 1) many a Liberal supporter did not show up to vote and 2) the usual progressive vote splitting fiasco.