Dissecting the 2011 vote

Having reaffirmed once again my inability at making accurate predictions, I am going to offer now my very personal reading of the results of the general election held in Canada early this week. I am, of course, no pundit or political scientist, merely an amateur — anyone wanting to find a more informed and insightful analysis can consult a host of respectable and authoritative sources, such as this one (just kidding).

I am going to start from the only thing that makes sense to me, which are the raw numbers (“numbers don’t lie to people, people lie to people”… anyway).

Party Votes in 2011 (%) Votes in 2008 (%) Votes in 2006 (%)
CPC 5,832401 (39.6) 5,205,334 (37.7) 5,374,071 (36.3)
LPC 2,783,175 (18.9) 3,629,990 (26.2) 4,479,415 (30.2)
NDP 4,508,474 (30.6) 2,517,075 (18.2) 2,589,597 (17.4)
BQ 889,788 (6.0) 1,379,565 (10.0) 1,553,201 (10.5)
Green 576,221 (3.9) 940,747 (6.8) 664,068 (4.5)
Others 130521 (0.9) 160261 (1.1) 185328 (1.2)
Total 14,720,580 (61.4) 13,832,972 (59.1) 14,845,680 (64.7)

In terms of seat allocation, the specific electoral system currently in vigour in Canada [0] assigns 167 (i.e., an outright majority by a 13-seat margin) to the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), whose leader and returning Prime Minister Stephen Harper will now be able to steamroll through his own (and his party’s) agenda and vision for the country, over the next four years. they will be pretty much only formally challenged by the House opposition (I come back to this point below).
The official opposition will be the New Democratic Party (NDP), which received 102 seats, whereas the Liberal Party of Canada (the leading party until 2006 and official opposition until last week) is relegated in this legislature to a minor role, with only 34 seats.
This election has also seen the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and the Green Party both lose approximately a third of their 2008 consensus across the country. Funnily enough, while this spells catastrophe for the BQ, almost entirely wiped out of the House (from the 50 seats it had, to just 4), some people seem to think that for the Green Party things have gone well, since it managed to have one elected representative, while it had none in 2008 (despite garnering a much greater share of the popular vote on that occasion) [1].

How many did vote ?
In 2008, low voter turnout was the key to the CPC’s advancement. About a million fewer voters exercised their constitutional right in 2008 than they had in 2006, as a result of which all major parties lost votes. In 2008, the Conservatives did better than the other parties at containing the hemorrhage, while the LPC suffered a huge loss — almost entirely accountable by the failure of its supporters to show up at the polling stations, as well as by the success of the Green Party, to which many Liberal votes appeared to have been funnelled (see this old post of mine). This time around, turnout was not much better than in 2008 percentage-wise, but the sheer number of voters is close to that of 2006. This means that approximately one million more people went to the polls last Monday than in 2008; obviously, this number must include both returning and first-time voters. As shown below, this must be taken into account, if one is to get a sense for the current mood of the electorate.

Winners and Losers

Party Difference with respect to 2008
CPC +632,605
LPC -850,010
NDP +1,992,913
BQ -490,203
Green -361,392
Difference +923,913

There is no question that the big winner of this election, in terms of sheer gain, is the NDP, which posted a stunning increase of almost two million votes. To me, this is the most significant outcome of this exercise. The CPC also did well, of course, better than I expected, although a posteriori it is not difficult to think of why things went so well for it.

When it comes to analyzing elections, obviously one can only aim at achieving at best some broad understanding. As one can see from the above table, gains and losses add up to very nearly the number of extra votes with respect to 2008 (887,608). My impression is that continued dissatisfaction of the electorate with the once so popular Liberal Party is at the root of the result of this election.
The above numbers and some straightforward accounting suggest that the NDP drew massively not only from the BQ and from the Greens [2], but also, indeed mostly from the Liberals. Since 2006, the LPC has lost votes to the CPC too, but to lesser a degree than to the NDP. Whereas in 2008 a lot of Liberal voters stayed home and some voted for the Green party, this time around they voted — for the NDP, and for the CPC. Perhaps those who voted for the conservatives are the ones ideologically closer to them, who do not feel comfortable casting “too leftist” a vote for the NDP, or maybe they were simply tired of minority legislatures. On the other hand, a bigger chunk of these unhappy Liberal voters decided to go with the NDP, whose progressive stands on social issues, as well as on things like public health care, are more attractive to them than those of the Conservatives.

A broader conclusion is that, at 40%, the CPC may have reached its ceiling of consensus in the country, and is more likely to move down than up in future elections (although of course that depends a lot on how good the next four years will be for the majority of Canadians). Canada has a strong conservative party, but overall it is not a conservative country, in my opinion. If it were, if it were really moving to the right as suggested by some political pundits, then a much greater fraction of the votes lost by the LPC would have gone to the Conservatives, as opposed to benefiting an openly leftist formation.
By the same token, as much as I like to see the NDP grow in popularity and support, I am convinced that under the right leadership the LPC will come back and reclaim most of the votes lost during the past half decade, both to its left as well as to its right. I do not buy the contention that Canada may be moving toward a US-style two-party system, I do believe that there is both room and need for a strong, majority centrist party, and I think that the disastrous results of 2008 and 2011 should be attributed to poor choices of leaders and ambiguous policies and stands. When people tire of the CPC, they will go again with the Liberals, I am afraid, not with the NDP, which may well be relegated to opposition party for the foreseeable future [3].

OK, now what ?
It’s simple: Harper and the CPC get to govern for four years and implement their agenda, essentially without having to worry about any opposition in the House. But does that mean that Canadians have handed them what essentially amounts to a “blank check” ? I don’t think so. The fact that a specific electoral system is conceived to produce an artificial “governing majority” [4], even if no majority of opinion exists in the country, does not erase the fact that 40% is not 100%, or 51% — no electoral system can change that (even though I do hope that the effort of organizations like Fair Vote Canada does lead to electoral reform and proportional representation, not too far in the future).
If opposition in the country grows to the policies of the government, or to the legislative agenda of the majority, there is a way for concerned citizens to make their voices heard, even as crucial votes in the House keep going the same way.
Any elected representative whose office receives daily phone calls from angry voters, expressing their discontent with her (or her party’s) stand on a particular issue and urging her to reconsider or abandon it, will eventually start listening and convey the message to the leadership. No reasonable [5] government head would shrug off a rally across the country involving millions of people, voicing their opposition to the government’s intent of, say, privatizing health care (incidentally, I doubt very much if Harper is even thinking of doing anything like that).
Of course, that means that people have to stay informed and be willing to make calls. Simply “bitching about it”, does not go very far.


[0] A fairer, more democratic, proportional electoral system would give the CPC only 122 seats, the NDP 94, the LPC 58, the BQ 19 and the Green Party 11 (four remaining seats could go to any of the five parties, or to an independent). Clearly, the dynamics and political discourse would be very different. While the CPC would still be the first party, it would not be able to form a majority government. Conceivably, it would still form a government, but it would need to seek the support of the LPC; alternatively, the country could be governed by a coalition led by the NDP, including the LPC and the Green party. Whether that scenario would be good or bad, depends on one’s personal opinion (I happen to like a system were compromise among different political forces must be sought; I am not fond of giving too much power to anyone), but one ought keep in mind that proportional representation does exist in some countries. So, in my mind the true outcome of the election is represented by the percentages for each party, and these should always be kept in mind — they would likely stay the same if the electoral system were to change, whereas seat allocation can be drastically different.

[1] Forget about the jubilant tone of many Green Party representatives and voters, rejoicing over the election of Elizabeth May to the House. The result of May 2 2011 is very disappointing for the Green Party. It brutally shows how much of a fluke was their positive 2008 showing, and how far removed the Green movement is from mainstream politics in Canada.

[2] This is really what pleases me the most about this election. An effective progressive party must be the natural home of progressive issues. I have always felt that, wherever the Green Party thrives, the existing left is not doing its job well, as environmental concern is at the heart of any progressive movement, nowadays. Hardly disputable seems the contention that the province of Québéc has expressed through its vote a strong desire for a change of course. Its stunning, inescapable, merciless rejection of the BQ is epitomized by the election of many NDP candidates who are political novices and/or were running for office for the first time (some young enough to be my students…).

[3] Is that a bad thing ? I am not so sure. Don’t get me wrong, I wished the CPC had not gotten a majority and that Canada could be governed by an NDP-led coalition, supported by the Liberals, and at some point I even believed that that could happen. Still, as a progressive person and NDP voter, it is much more important to me if a progressive, left-wing party enjoys a position of influence on the legislative process, i.e., in the House. At 30%, the NDP has unquestionably established itself as an important voice in Canadian politics, albeit with a Conservative majority I am afraid it will not be able to influence much of anything at all in the House, in the four years to come.

[4] There is, of course, a lot to be said for this — none of it good, unfortunately.

[5] I said reasonable….

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