Members of Parliament returned to work this week in pre-campaign mode. In just a few weeks—by the end of this month or early October—legislators and voters will know the fate of a possible fall vote. This would be Canadians’ fourth vote in five years.
Fuelled by election speculation, federal parties have reserved buses and planes and booked meeting halls. Discussions with television networks to organize leaders’ debates are already underway.
The man behind this frenzy: Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. At a Liberal caucus meeting in northern Ontario two weeks ago, he vowed to bring down Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government at the first opportunity.
But the timing couldn’t be worse. Polls show Canadians are suffering from election fatigue. On October 14, 2008, they were thrown into yet another unwanted election, showing their discontent at the voting booths and with voter turnout at just 58 percent.
Last year’s election returned Harper’s minority Conservative government to power, winning 143 of 308 seats. Under Stéphane Dion at the time, the Liberal Party won a dismal 77 seats. The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) won 37 seats while the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which only runs candidates in the province of Québec, elected 49 Members of Parliament (MP).
A year later, the political landscape has hardly changed. Polls show the gap is widening between the governing Tories and the Liberal Party with the Liberals losing support in vote-rich Québec and Ontario. The Bloc Québécois remains consistently on top in Québec followed by the Liberals. A recent Harris-Decima/Canadian Press survey reports that the Conservatives are at 34 percent voter approval and the Liberals are at 31 percent with the NDP hovering at 15 percent. A recent Ekos /Canadian Broadcasting Corporation poll also shows Liberal support is softening and Harper is increasing his lead with 34 percent support versus 31 percent for the Liberals.
This will likely translate into a 3rd minority government for Harper on voting day.
So why force an election that will likely yield the same results?
“Iggy” as Ignatieff is sometimes called, said he was basing his decision “on principles, not on polls.” The former Harvard professor and scholar outlined four reasons why, in his view, the Conservatives no longer deserve to govern: lack of employment insurance reforms for the unemployed; lack of a deficit plan; delays on funding economic stimulus projects; and the state of health care.
But the reality is that Michael Ignatieff is in a catch-22.
After several empty threats to take down the Tories, his image is beginning to falter. Like Stéphane Dion—who was unceremoniously ejected as party head—Ignatieff is increasingly seen as someone indecisive whose bark is bigger than his bite.
But in many ways, the Liberal leader is the architect of his own demise.
Ignatieff, a 61-year-old Toronto MP, reluctantly agreed in January to support Harper’s $50.2 billion budget (now revised to $55.9 billion) in exchange for quarterly budget reports on the implementation of fiscal stimulus measures. The March quarterly report—deemed unacceptable by Ignatieff—came and went. The June report also hit an impasse. Harper rebuffed the Liberal leader’s demands but agreed to set up a panel to study ways to relax eligibility rules for the unemployed. The Conservative-Liberal panel was dismantled over the summer with no results, leaving Ignatieff empty-handed.
In hindsight, Ignatieff’s demand for quarterly budget reports proved to be a mistake, says Peter Donolo, partner with Strategic Counsel, a Toronto polling firm. “It damaged their brand” and it “creates a crisis every four months...” “The more they vote to keep them in office..., the more difficult it is for the Liberals to claim they’re an alternative,” he adds.
The Liberals could vote down the government on a non-confidence motion in the House of Commons tentatively scheduled for September 18, triggering a 36-day campaign. But to get the numbers, they need the help of the NDP or the Bloc Québécois.
Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe has said he will look at what measures proposed by the government, if any, serve Québec’s interests before deciding whether to support the Tories. But his mind is already on the campaign trail. After Ignatieff’s initial honeymoon with les Québécois, the party is taking no chances. In a catchy ad campaign unveiled a week ago under the theme Deux partis, un regard, (Two parties, one vision), it’s portraying Ignatieff as a carbon copy of Harper, someone, the Bloc says, who has hardline views vis-à-vis Québec’s aspirations.
So the fate of Harper’s minority government seems to be in the hands of the NDP. Jack Layton, the NDP leader, has ferociously opposed the Tories in the past. But as an election call looms, he seems to have changed his tune. Canadians are expecting parties to cooperate in the House of Commons “and get results for people—especially those that are struggling right now: the unemployed and the people being left behind,” he hastily told the media.
His remarks suggest there may be room for a compromise between the Tories and the NDP that would keep Harper’s government alive. Meanwhile, the government is expected to come up with its own proposals to make it easier for the unemployed to collect employment insurance benefits.
It’s not clear whether Michael Ignatieff’s gamble will pay off. His popularity has dived 15 points since March when he said that he would no longer prop up the government, according to the Harris-Decima poll.
The stakes are high for Harper as well. His leadership will come under review if he wins a third straight minority government. For the first time, he was heard telling supporters at a private meeting in Sault Ste. Marie, in northern Ontario, that he wanted a majority government. Otherwise, the country would be governed by a Liberal-led coalition propped up by “the socialists and the separatists.”
“If they get together and force us to the polls, we have to teach them a lesson and get back there with a majority, and make sure their little coalition never happens,” Harper said in a speech. A videotape of the speech recorded by a student was sent to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
That speech put Ignatieff on the defensive. He was forced to say on the record that he would not join forces with the Bloc Québécois and the NDP in a coalition government but was open to some arrangements. Last December, however, he did just that with the signing of a document setting out the terms and conditions of a Liberal-NDP coalition with the support of the Bloc Québécois. He later backtracked, saying he would support a “coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition.”
Coalition or no coalition, it’s hard to guess the outcome of an election, should one be called.
While Harper was in political free-fall in the aftermath of last December’s political crisis, he has rebounded in Ontario, a crucial election battleground. He has also managed to turn a disaster to his advantage by defining a Liberal-led coalition as an anti-democratic power grab by Québec separatists and socialists to throw out a legitimately-elected government, says Donolo. The prospect of a coalition government had been well received in Québec but fiercely opposed in Western Canada.
But Harper has also hit a “glass ceiling,” Donolo adds. “Almost two-thirds of Canadians are unwilling to vote for him and yet, the Liberals have a hard time becoming the default party.”
With or without an election, Harper and Ignatieff are set for what is shaping up to be a politically challenging fall season.
*Huguette Young is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada. To reach a blogger, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org