The longest federal election campaign in modern Canadian history is finally into the homestretch and, as I write on October 2, it’s still a horserace with the three main parties – Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, Tom Mulcair’s New Democratic Party, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – very close in the opinion polls. The latest data shows the Conservatives with such a small lead over the Liberals that it’s within the margin of error, with the NDP not far behind.
If the current polling trends are an accurate reflection of what will happen on October 19 – and that remains to be seen given both the volatility of the electorate and the difficulty pollsters have had in recent years achieving reliable polling results – then it is all but certain none of the three main parties will elect enough members of Parliament to form a majority government. The question then becomes which party will form the government?
Conventionally, in a minority situation, we assume the Governor General will call on the party that elects the greatest number of MPs to form the government. That’s the way it’s usually worked in the past when the competition to form government has been between two main parties with third parties well behind in their seat counts.
This time, though, it looks like all three main parties could well end up within striking distance of each other with just a few seats separating the first place party from the second and third. This presents a number of possible scenarios, which could turn the days, or possibly weeks, following October 19 into a whole new ballgame.
The way parliamentary systems actually work is that it’s not necessarily the party with the most elected members that forms the government. Rather, it is the party – or a coalition of parties – best seen to command the confidence of the majority of members that establishes government.
In Israel, where no party ever elects a majority of members of the Knesset, it’s not always the party with the most seats that heads the governing coalition (and it is always a coalition there), it is the party that can make the deals that give it the confidence of the majority. In 2009, for example, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party received more votes and elected more members than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but it was Netanyahu who was able to cobble together a majority coalition making him prime minister.
Could Canada, after October 19, 2015, be in for the kind of negotiations that take place after every Israeli election?
Let’s assume the current polling numbers are somewhat accurate and that they hold up through election day. The analysis (on October 2) at www.threehundredeight.com – a site that aggregates and analyzes results from all the main polling firms – suggests each of the three main parties will win more than 100 seats.
If that’s what happens and the parties all insist on going their separate ways, we’ll have an unstable minority government and will almost certainly be in for another election very soon.
However, if any two of the three main parties can form some sort of coalition, it would have the support of a solid majority of members sitting in the House of Commons.
Realistically, it’s hard to imagine the Conservatives working with either of the other two parties.
And while the other two parties may be closer ideologically to each other than either is to the Conservatives, this has been a campaign marked by their leaders’ seeming disdain for each other.
Is there enough common ground between the Liberals and the NDP to form a stable coalition? Would one leader yield to the other as prime minister? Would we see a power-sharing agreement – as we sometimes see in Israel – where one is prime minister for two years and then they switch?
Both the Liberals and the NDP have talked about electoral reform that would result in a House of Commons whose membership more accurately reflects national voting patterns than the first-past-the-post system in each riding that has been in play since Confederation. If a proportional or partial-proportional representation system is introduced in Canada, it may well mean we’ll never elect a majority government again and Israeli-style negotiations leading to Israeli-style coalition governments becomes the norm here.
In the past, when we’ve elected a majority government or a minority government with a significant plurality, the election night results have been quickly obvious.
That may not be the case on October 19.