Canadian Election Post Mortem

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

4 thoughts on “Canadian Election Post Mortem

  1. The SNP benefits in Scotland from the working man’s inability to vote Conservative no matter how badly the Labour Party stitch them up. They won’t vote Conservative, the Liberal Democrats are a joke and Labour have pulled so many scams and been embroiled in so much dirty dealing, nepotism and downright thievery the Scots have only one option – the SNP.

    Who cares is their attitude, that the SNP are bad for the economy, the English Taxpayers end up picking up the tab anyway…

  2. Hello Jason,

    I came across your commentary on the Canadian elections and thought it was very interesting. I am studying Canadian politics as a hobby of sorts. I lived in Canada for 4 years and worked for the New Democrats in Quebec and Federally when our fervent hope was that we could win 50 seats and be Canada’s social conscience. My how life changes.

    I can speak to the declining salience of the ‘national question’ to younger voters in Quebec, at least when I was at McGill from 01-07 and in talking to friends who still live in the country. The surge in support for the Bloc in recent elections was more a referendum on the unpopularity of the Liberals than an endorsement for sovereignty.

    That said, I don’t think you can make a 1:1 correlation between the Bloc’s decline and a possible decline in PQ support. For one thing, the Bloc was challenged by a moderate social democratic political party in the Federal NDP. Quebec Solidaire – the left-wing challenger to the PQ – is substantially more radical. Perhaps more importantly, although the PQ is a sovereigntist party, it has also developed a solid policy reputation, whereas the Bloc’s raison d’etre was fighting for Quebec independence. In other words, the PQ is much more a part of the institutional provincial political landscape than was the Bloc.

    It is an open question whether the bigger story of the election was the collapse of the Bloc or of the Liberal Parties. In some ways, I think that the sudden re-emergence of the National Question beginning with Meech Lake restored the Liberals to power and served to mask some of the left-right divisions that seethed in the party after Trudeau left power. In a traditional parliamentary system, the Liberal Party should have gone the way of its English cousins many years ago, but could plausibly argue that it was the only political party capable of maintaining Quebec in Federation, serving as a kind internal channel for the concerns of moderate Anglophones and Quebec’s ‘soft-nationalists.’

    The Grits were, of course, assisted by divisions on the right that continued even after the formation of the Conservative Party. It took several election cycles both in and out of power before Stephen Harper could create the kind of internal party discipline necessary to convince voters that the Tories could also represent Canadian values rather than just be a loose coalition of Alberta Oilmen, Toronto Bankers and Western Radicals. The reconstruction of the Liberal Party as a political formation whose existence was based largely on its ability to channel and regulate the National Question combined with the lingering appeal among voters for successfully fighting the 1997 Referendum, a belief that the Liberals could be won back to Trudeau-style social welfarism and their embracing of the Third Way.

    Thanks very much for your commentary I look forward to continuing to read your blog!

    1. Thanks very much for the informative comment, Charles! As I mentioned over e-mail, I think the point you make about the differences between the PQ and BQ is particularly astute – the former can lay claim to provincial policies they have put in place as the Quebec government in years past.

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