As a neighboring, wealthy country of 35 million people, about as many as live in California, Canada certainly gets less attention from Americans than it deserves. Here are a few of my thoughts on the historic results of yesterday’s Canadian election and their broader significance.
- The results help point up the perversities inherent in single member district plurality electoral systems. The Conservatives won well over 50% of the seats with a touch under 40% of the vote, as the left-wing NDP’s surge confounded tactical voting for the candidates of the center-left Liberal Party in ridings where the latter was better placed to win. I would not be surprised to see attempts to unify the left in a single party, as eventually happened on the right between the Alliance and the Prog Cons.
- The secessionist Bloc Québécois was thrashed, losing 40% of its vote from 2008 (already a down year for the party) and over 90% of its seats. Apparently left-wing nationalists deserted the BQ in droves for the NDP. NDP leader Jack Layton successfully made the case that it was “safe” for left-wing Quebec nationalists to support an anti-nationalist party on ideological grounds. The BQ has tried to remain centrist in the Quebec context (slightly left of center in the Canadian context), but this attempt to appeal to Quebec’s left-right median opens them up to flank attacks.
- Some of my research shows that secessionist parties lose ground when the countrywide economy does badly, presumably because under such circumstances traditional left-right economic policy concerns take precedence with voters over constitutional questions. The effect is small and somewhat uncertain, but this may be part of what is going on. (It wouldn’t, however, explain the SNP’s approaching triumph.)
- A stronger reason for the decline in salience of the independence-unity spectrum in Quebec politics is the moribund nature of the sovereignty question. Another referendum is not on the cards for a long time to come, nor is any kind of comprehensive new-federalist settlement, so it is natural that at a certain point many moderate Quebec nationalists would stop voting purely on expressive grounds and start to try to exercise some influence over policy-making at the center. The BQ (and its provincial counterpart, the Parti Quebecois) will need to give voters reasons to expend their votes on them, when the other federal parties have essentially ruled out giving them a say in policy, either as part of a formal coalition or as part of a confidence-and-supply agreement. And the sovereignty question will not rise again until Quebec’s long-term relative economic decline (and growing dependence on federal equalization payments) is sorted.
Update: For further thoughts about what this election means for Quebec, check out Saideman’s Semi-Spew.