Canada's Conservatives appear to be heading for defeat after a decade in power. The likely election outcome is a Liberal government with support from another opposition party, the NDP. Philip Fine reports from Montreal.
Canada's decade-old Conservative government will likely be defeated in Monday's federal election at the hands of the Liberals, who, if polls hold steady, will gain power with a minority government.
Even if the Conservatives do eke out a win, the minority status they can hope for will prove to be brief, since the opposition parties will offer little to no support for any proposed legislation. All four - whose platforms have little in common with a government that has played increasingly to a socially conservative base - have stated unequivocally that they will not prop up a minority government led by Stephen Harper.
"Mr. Harper, who has governed in a very partisan manner for the last four years, really has no dance partner, so it's hard to see how he can hold together any kind of minority parliament," said Max Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia.
The Conservatives have been pushing an agenda that has offered less to a broad swath of Canadians and more to the party faithful. Legislation on increased powers and less oversight for Canada's spy agency and a fight in court against a woman's right to wear a niqab in a citizenship ceremony have been two of the more recent issues that have alienated voters. Corruption scandals over senate appointees and an ensuing resignation by Harper's chief of staff to cover up one of them, as well as a muzzling of federal scientists and an antipathy toward parliamentary oversight officers, have also damaged the Conservative brand.
The party earned a mere 38 percent of the popular vote in the last election in 2011 thanks to Canada's first-past-the-post system. They gained majority status against a fractured opposition, winning more seats than the combined total of the other parties.
But that seat count is now looking very different, according to polls. On Friday, the Liberals were projected to win 110 additional seats, to capture 140 of the country's 338 ridings by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Poll tracker, which aggregates publicly released polls. The site also forecast 110 seats for the Conservatives and 86 for the NDP, 1 for the Bloc Quebecois and 1 for the Green Party. That combined seat count for the Liberals and the NDP would give them a majority in the House.
Cameron, who has written a paper on the subject of post-election cooperation, was confident that if the Conservatives lose the confidence of the House and a coalition ensues, or if the Liberals win minority status, the Liberals and the NDP will find legislative issues on which to agree.
The election has been marked by the traditional centrist Liberal Party putting out more left-leaning offerings than the NDP, which has been playing against type and offering balanced budgets. That has stoked fears from the left that it could mean cuts to social programs. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took the risky move of saying he will put the Canadian budget into deficit for three years in order to invest heavily in infrastructure and is calling for increased taxes for the wealthiest Canadians.
Despite those differences, there is much overlap in the campaign promises from the two main opposition parties.
"There is a lot of common ground between the Liberals and NDP, so it's not hard to imagine that they could work together in some sort of minority situation," he says, listing electoral reform, affordable national daycare and, especially, climate change as new bills that could easily pass through the legislature. "We've been disgraced internationally, and every single member of NDP, Greens and Liberal caucuses wants action on climate change."
Harper has in the past governed with minority status. In 2009, the Liberal Party under then-leader Michael Ignatieff supported the Conservatives. But the political landscape, and in particular the type of leaders trying to affect that landscape, has changed since then.
Trudeau, son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has defied expectations and battled criticism of being a political neophyte. The telegenic 43-year-old has brought new energy and high-mindedness to a party that was humiliated in the last election. Despite outflanking the left, he appears to also be stealing potential voters from the right side of the political spectrum.
On Wednesday, Trudeau's campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier resigned after it was revealed that he sent an email to an energy company outlining how they could best lobby the government for a pending pipeline approval. The incident threatened to paint the new Liberal brand with some of its predecessor's reputation for corporate backroom deals. The controversy appears to not have the power to derail the Liberals.
The NDP was the opposition party expected to give the Conservatives a greater challenge. It held frontrunner status for the first half of the historically long 78-day campaign. Besides being criticized by the left for putting forth too safe a platform, leader Tom Mulcair has also lost some momentum in the province of Quebec after coming out with support for a woman's right to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The issue seemed like a well-placed trap by Harper, who earned from the case potential new votes but also intense criticism from those who saw the move as divisive identity politics.
Cameron sees the Liberal minority with its likely NDP support as a way of getting away from the constant campaigning and partisan competition that has characterized Canadian federal politics. "This would really force the leaders and the caucuses of the parties to be involved in a constant process of negotiation and compromise and consensus building," he said. "I think, as people see our leaders beginning to work together collaboratively, they'll say 'Oh, now I understand why we have a parliament.'"