Polarization and collapse

May 3, 2011

I would never claim to be an astute observer of Canadian politics, but even I discern that something quite remarkable happened in our federal elections yesterday.

(Background for non-Canadian readers: we held our third federal election in the past five years. The last few elections have resulted in a minority government formed by the Conservative party (‘minority’ in the sense that they held fewer than half of the Parliamentary seats), with official opposition from the center-left Liberal party. Almost 50 seats were held by the Bloc Quebecois, a party which only runs candidates in the province of Quebec and which wants Quebec to separate from Canada, and then a few dozen seats were held by the left-wing New Democratic party.)

For the first few weeks of this election campaign  — which Americans might be envious to learn lasted for only a few weeks — nothing seemed to be happening: popular support for each party was stable and it appeared that the new election would simply put us back where we were before. Then, in the last week or two, poll results went wild. The NDP began to encroach, in level of popular support, with the Liberals, and then, very rapidly, Liberal support collapsed as more and more people piled onto the NDP bandwagon. When the polls closed last night, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from the results.

What resulted was this: five parties had at least one member elected to Parliament. The Conservatives increased their seats by twenty-odd and achieved a majority government, which is a major change from the situation that has prevailed of late and should provide some welcome stability. The NDP increased their seats by an incredible number: from 37 before the election to 102 now, making them the official Opposition. The Liberals, who have never before been a third-place party, halved their seats to just 34. The Bloc Quebecois fell from 49 seats to 4, and good riddance to them. Finally, the leader of Canada’s Green party was elected, marking the first time that the Greens have sent a member to Parliament.

Two weeks ago I don’t think this could have been predicted, but the political landscape in Canada has really been substantially altered. I would summarize the change as: polarization and collapse. Both the Liberals and the Bloc collapsed; both of their leaders failed to be elected in their own ridings, and both have now resigned. At the same time, the two strongest parties after the election are our right-most and left-most parties, which certainly looks like Canadian politics is going to be more polarized than it was before.

Why did it happen? What does it all mean? What will happen now? Was this outcome a case of collective whimsy? Collective insanity? If anyone wants to comment, consider this an open thread.

14 Responses to “Polarization and collapse”

  1. cburrell Says:

    My first experiment with an ‘open thread’ must be considered a dismal failure. Evidently Canadian politics is just not very interesting. Well, I cannot say that I entirely disagree. Long live the Queen.

  2. Janet Says:

    What is an “open” thread?

    AMDG

  3. cburrell Says:

    It just means that anybody can post any comment they’d like. In that respect, it’s pretty much the same as every other comment thread around here.

  4. Janet Says:

    I see.

    AMDG

  5. Jim Says:

    Having been somewhat pre-occupied lately, I haven’t taken advantage of your open thread to partake of my half-founded opinions craig, but don’t fear. I will 😉

  6. cburrell Says:

    Half-founded? I doubt it. Anyway, take your time. The nice thing about the Interweb is that it never goes away.

  7. Mac Says:

    Well, I’m just catching up, after having been very busy for the past week or so, and I certainly find this an interesting development, but not knowing anything about Canadian politics I can’t say anything substantive. I can, however, say, that something like this is happening in the U.S. and has been for a long time. It’s not so much a matter of extremes, though…well, on second thought, maybe it is: maybe our left and right were already as extreme as yours are becoming. Not that we have many truly extreme right-wingers or left-wingers: few hard-nosed authoritarians on the right, of the sort who would have made up a Latin American junta, and few hard-nosed communists on the left. But the positions have certainly calcified. I find it all but impossible to talk about politics with most (or at least many) people. You just get cheap rhetorical shots, talking points, and sound bites. And a lot of hostility. It’s been accurately described as tribal. I hope you folks aren’t going our way.

  8. cburrell Says:

    I don’t think our politics is quite as polarized as it seems to be in the United States. The rhetoric, at least, isn’t quite so overheated here, but perhaps that’s just due to the famous Canadian politeness. The fact that we usually have at least three parties with substantial support is probably relevant, as is the fact that the left and right sides of our spectrum have not really been of equal influence for quite a while. Even our sole ‘right-wing’ party (which now forms the government) is not very right-wing by American standards.

    One similarity between Canada and the US is that our parties tend to get regional support. As in your case, our major urban areas tend to be more on the left, and our small town and rural areas tend to be more on the right.

    Canada just recently got its first ‘right-wing’ news channel, which I expect is modeling itself on Fox News. I haven’t seen it myself, but I hear that it is pretty dreadful.

  9. Christina Says:

    I will try to remain “un-partisan” in my comments in that I won’t express this as strong support for any one party…

    Here’s part of what I think happened from a campaign perspective mainly because it’s the way they are run that captivates my attention rather than the party platforms, which I would judge as flat in this past election…

    The NDP Candidate (left-wing) captured the hearts and imagination of his audience in a unique way in this election and the momentum drove the votes through the roof. Almost every image by mid-campaign portrayed him in a victorious pose and used his cane as a powerful visual prop on the national stage – he was painted as an unlikely hero; a David who would conquer Goliath. A testament to the power of this emotional reaction from the nation is the fact that only now is the media widely criticizing the (in some cases extreme) lack of qualification among the newly elected NDP MPs!

    The Conservative Candidate (right-wing) didn’t much bother with winning new support. He spoke directly and with a consistently strong message to his usual constituency. The message was “economic stability” and that, I think, touched on the fears of many of his voters and mobilized them (and perhaps some new supporters) in a strong way. He used the old Clinton card “It’s the economy, stupid!” and it worked well.

    As for our Liberal and Separatist leaders – neither captured anyone’s imagination. The Liberal leader was uninspiring and unapproachable. Quebec didn’t seem to be in the independent mood this time around. Both butchered their speeches on election night and though I’ll miss the separatist leader Duceppe (I always respected him highly), I won’t miss the liberal candidate and think he will have a happy “retirement” now as an academic.

    As for the Green party: hooray for them but their leader needs to learn how to become a better stateswoman and stop acting like an amateur on open-mic night. I think their campaign success had a lot to do with real estate – they finally ran her in a remote enough, enviro-friendly enough, small community enough riding for her to finally have a chance to get her foot into the Ottawa door.

  10. cburrell Says:

    I think you are right that the personalities of the leaders go a long way toward explaining the outcome. I am not sure that explanation works for the Conservatives — does Stephen Harper have a personality? — but, as you say, perhaps it was the appeal of the ‘steady hand at the tiller’ and the promise of economic stability that kept Conservative support strong while the other parties’ support was sloshing around.

    I have a more positive opinion of the Green party leader than you evidently do, but I agree with you that despite her election they had a pretty poor showing. I believe they lost a substantial number of votes across the country relative to the previous election. Still, the election of Ms. May will probably give them a higher profile, for better or worse, next time around.

    The consensus among pundits seems to be that the Liberals are dead and will take a long time to come back. I am not so sure. I think it is possible that a lot of voters could flip back to the Liberals if they are unhappy with the performance of the NDP — and, given the inexperience of so many of the NDP members, there may well be a good deal of unhappiness.

    Political strategy is not my best subject, but I think having the NDP as the Opposition party is better for the Conservatives than having the Liberals.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    It was a very strange election. It seemed like les Quebecois were thoroughly fed up with Harper and Duceppe. In a strange twist, they couldn’t stomach Ignatieff either because of his reputation as an elitist carpetbagger intellectual, courtesy of Mr. Harper. So instead the French defected to Jack Layton en masse, splitting the Ontario liberal vote in the process. It could have gone the other way though, with Jack leading an NDP/Liberal coalition. Quel desastre! With hindsight, I’m gonna miss Ignatieff. He was portrayed unfairly, and could have had a more positive impact on our politics if given the chance. As always, I don’t get the French. Ah well, Vive La Reine!

  12. Jonathan Says:

    Forgot to write my name ^

  13. cburrell Says:

    Vive La Reine, indeed.

    Yes, the Quebecois, like their language, are inscrutable. I am not sure why they opted for Layton (or was it the NDP?) over Ignatieff (or was it the Liberals?). Perhaps something to do with Layton’s good showing in the public eye during the campaign, or perhaps just an aversion to being too similar to Ontario? Quebecers tend to be socially liberal, and their domestic lives are a disaster, so maybe they simply chose the party that would tell them they were A-OK while, at the same time, cushioning their fall? I don’t know.

    Incidentally, what is a carpetbagger? I think I know — ‘someone who puts carpets into bags’ — but then I am not sure what a ‘carpetbagger intellectual’ would be.

  14. Jonathan Says:

    According to wikipedia a carpetbagger is a
    “derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation by outsiders” and it refers back to the tensions in the United States during the 1800s. As for “elitist” and “intellectual”, now that I think about it, the French like that sort of thing don’t they? More confused.

    The Quebecois have been sending the Bloc to parliament for the last twenty years, where they have done nothing of consequence whatsoever. I’m fairly confident that Jack will be equally redundant. It’s amazing really, 60% of the country is some shade of liberal, and yet we have a conservative government thanks to the peculiar voting strategy of our French friends.

    Inscrutable indeed.


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