The Earth moved on election day, but it remains to be seen to what extent Monday’s seismic electoral shock will rearrange this country’s political landscape.
What seems most certain at this early point of the election hereafter is that the Bloc Québécois is beyond recovery after its meltdown on Monday. Gilles Duceppe acknowledged immediately that the game was up for him, and none of the four surviving Bloc MPs is among those who had been touted as a prospective successor to Duceppe before the election.
The grievance of which the Bloc was born two decades ago - the failure of the Meech Lake accord that was intended to bring Quebec fully into the Canadian constitutional fold - has faded in the minds of all but Quebec nationalist obsessives. Not even a last-ditch appeal to the party’s core constituency of sovereignists was enough to stave off neartotal collapse.
The Conservatives have acceded to the majority that eluded them in two previous elections and are now in a position to show how well they can govern without the nagging constraints that minority government imposes. One hears widespread concern that this will free Stephen Harper to unleash a right-wing agenda that is alien to Canadian social and political culture. But there is good reason to believe the prime minister when he says that he intends to govern in the best interests of all Canadians, not just the hard-core Conservative electoral base. He will have to do so if he wants this majority to be more than a one-shot deal.
Consolidating the advantage gained in this election will also be a critical concern for the New Democratic Party in this coming Parliament. The NDP, thanks in large part to Jack Layton’s bravura performance on the campaign trail, made history by surpassing the Liberals to become the official opposition for the first time since its founding almost half a century ago.
At the outset there are doubts about the depth of the suddenly expanded NDP caucus, which ballooned from 37 to 102 thanks to a phenomenal near-sweep of Quebec seats. Many of these new members, particularly those from this province, are political neophytes who had little or no expectation of being elected and could wind up being an embarrassment to the party. We’ve seen this scenario before in this province, with the sudden rise and fall of the Action démocratique. But the NDP has a more solid tradition, and a stronger core of parliamentary veterans to teach the newcomers the ropes, than was the case with Mario Dumont’s ill fated-ADQ.
The Liberal Party, pushed back to third place for the first time since Confederation, isn’t quite on the brink of extinction like the Bloc Québécois, but it too is, at the moment, a fading brand. And after Michael Ignatieff ’s resignation announcement the morning after the debacle, the party is short on potential new leaders. Several who were seen as potential successors, including previous leadership contenders Ken Dryden, Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay, were defeated on Monday. Bob Rae now seems the most likely candidate, but while he is able and personable, he remains saddled with the legacy of his failings as New Democratic premier of Ontario.
What the Liberals and the NDP will have to contemplate if they are to have any serious hope of dethroning the Conservatives in the next election, or perhaps even the one thereafter, is a merger. This would be difficult for both, but holds the prospect of an enduring new alignment in Canadian politics that would avoid the vote-splitting on the left of the spectrum that greatly abetted the Conservatives’ romp to a majority despite the fact that 60 per cent of those who cast ballots voted for parties to the left of them.
Such a clear ideological choice might also heighten voter interest in Canadian elections. In recent years, with the Liberals and the Conservatives the only viable governing parties and both hugging the centre of the spectrum with only fairly slight variations, the choice in the eyes of too many Canadians was between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.
If the realignment of forces as a result of Monday’s vote proves enduring, that at least won’t be the case any more.