Canada 2011: NDP surging into second place

Postscript: Canada’s election laws ban all coverage and reporting of election results in districts where voting is still going on. This means that, between when results begin to come in from the eastern provinces and when polls close in British Columbia, all reporting of results on the internet is banned. The ban, however, doesn’t extend to private emails. So if anyone wants to email me at [email protected], I will tweet the results and post them here on the blog. Having said that, this is the first election since Twitter took off, and I think we may well see many Canadians attempt to break the ban. And now, here’s your post…

Canada goes to the polls on Monday in their fourth election in seven years. The election was originally expected to be rather plain, but has turned into a fascinating contest.

Canada has had three hung parliaments in a row since the 2004 election, with the centre-left Liberal Party governing up to 2006 and the Conservatives forming minority governments after the 2006 and 2008 elections. I previously covered the 2008 election in the early days of this blog, and posted about this campaign in early April.

It was expected that, with the opposition Liberal Party polling poorly under leader Michael Ignatieff, the Conservatives would finally have a shot at forming a majority government after gaining ground at three elections.

Around two weeks ago the left-wing New Democratic Party began to rise in the polls, particularly in the province of Quebec. The NDP has never done well in Quebec, holding no seats in the province until a by-election in 2007.

In three polls last Friday, the NDP polled clearly ahead of the Liberal Party, and in two of them polled only 5% behind the Conservatives.

In Quebec, the NDP has been polling far ahead of the other parties, polling in the high 30s or the low 40s, compare to the Bloc Quebecois in the low 20s.

While the NDP will have trouble winning a seat number that matches its high polling, they do seem on track to overtake the Liberals as the main opposition party in the House of Commons. Meanwhile the Conservatives seem likely to fall short of the number of seats needed for a majority.

The Bloc Quebecois have had a solid hold on a large majority of seats in the province since their emergence at the 1993 election. The current polling suggests the NDP is on track for huge swings, but there have been doubts about the ability of the party to translate that vote into seats. The party has little to no organisation in large parts of the province and were considered competitive in only a limited number of seats. Recent polls in individual ridings have shown the NDP leading or competitive in many seats where they weren’t considered viable.

The surge in support has drawn comparisons to last year’s UK election, where the Liberal Democrats polled competitively with the major parties, but come election day they only gained a slight swing and actually lost seats.┬áSo is it possible that the surge for the NDP could fade like that of the UK Liberal Democrats?

It is possible, but there are differences that make the NDP’s surge appear more solid.

Canada has a solid history of large, wild swings. The 1993 election saw the complete collapse of the Progressive Conservatives and the rise of the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois from nothing.

The NDP also has experience in government in Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan. While the NDP has never been a key factor in Quebec, the province stands out clearly as the most left-wing of Canada’s provinces. The Bloc Quebecois has generally pushed a left-wing agenda similar to the NDP’s with the exception of their emphasis on sovereignty, and it isn’t implausible that the declining relevance of Quebec sovereignty could see the Bloc lose out to a larger party with a similar agenda.

There are also certain parallels between this campaign and 1993. That election saw the complete collapse of the main historical centre-right party, being hurt by the rise of a new party further to the right. That party went on to create a new Conservative Party with a more hardline position than the former Progressive Conservatives. The Liberal Party’s positioning in the centre of the political spectrum largely reflects the former party system. Conservatives have been in government for the past four years due to division between the three left-of-centre parties, which have always held a combined majority in the Commons.

It is possible that the shifting of support from the Bloc and the Liberals to the NDP could see the emergence of a new left-of-centre force to rival the Conservatives much more clearly, and restore Canada to something much similar to a recognisable two-party system, but it’s far too early to make that call. If sovereignty begins to lose its appeal in Quebec, we could the federal parties gradually eat away at the Bloc’s seats.

The Canadian election also has certain parallels to the recent Irish election. Like Canada, the Irish labour movement’s political wing never became a national major party, like Labour parties in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Instead, the NDP and Irish Labour have largely been sidelined as third party forces, while two other parties filled those roles of major parties. While Canadian politics has little in common with the disaster that is modern Irish politics, it will be interesting if Canada also sees a social democratic party finally break through into the top two, over a century after this happened in Australia.

Despite the surge in support for the left-wing NDP, it still seems that we will see a third minority Conservative government formed after this week’s election. The NDP has largely benefited from the collapse in support for the Liberal Party, along with the decline of the Bloc. However, the loss of support for the Bloc could see them lose enough seats that the NDP and the Liberal Party could form a majority without the need for the Bloc, producing the bizarre outcome of a government led by Jack Layton and the NDP, with the Liberals either supporting from the crossbenches or serving as a junior coalition partner. It would be a disastrous decline for a party that dominated government in Canada until 2006.

Elsewhere: Gael Hermine at World Politics is Canadian, and has written a comprehensive post previewing the election. An essential website on Canadian polling is ThreeHundredEight.com.