Canada election: four ways that history was made May 2

Monday's election in Canada kept Prime Minister Steven Harper in power, but the results revealed an earthquake in Canadian politics. The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois lost big time, and the leftist New Democrats are the official opposition.

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    People watch election results announced by national media on TV screens in Toronto May 2. Canada's Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper won.
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Canada rarely gets earthquakes but it felt a big temblor on May 2. When the rest of the world was glued to news about Osama bin Laden, Canadians voted in an election that shook up their political landscape.

On the surface, the election simply saw more of the same: Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who took office in 2006, will stay in power. But wait, much more happened below the crust:

1. For the first time in Canada’s history, the Liberals came in third place, with only 19 percent of the vote. The party of Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and Jean Chretien that so dominated politics for decades and defined Canadian identity fell from grace. The loss forced its leader, former Harvard academic Michael Ignatieff, to resign. (He even lost his own seat in Parliament).

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2. Bloc Quebecois, the political party that long championed separation for Quebec province, also lost big time. Its seat count went from 47 seats to 4. This will alter one of Canada’s long-standing debates about its unity.

3. A party with socialist roots in the Great Recession, the New Democratic Party, essentially grabbed the left-of-center votes from the Liberals. It came in second with 31 percent. The NDP, long a small minority, is now the official opposition party for the first time in Canada’s history, with the charismatic Jack Layton at its helm. Many of its MPs are fresh faces, some of whom didn’t even campaign.

4. For Conservatives, their victory was sweet and historic. The party has not won a majority in Parliament in 23 years. Mr. Harper has had to rule over a minority government for the past five years, forming coalitions to get anything done.

The prime minister's popularity was largely due to his stewardship of the economy during the global recession. Canada did far better than its neighbor to the south in weathering the storm and in a recovery. Now, with majority rule and 40 percent of the vote, the Conservatives can pass many of their measures more easily.

Harper’s long-term goal was supposedly to break the Liberals’ hold on politics, as well as have a strong showing in Ontario for his western-based party. This politician from Alberta may have done both.

But he may also have helped Canada achieve a largely two-party political system. Stark blue-red differences will mark the New Democrats and the Conservatives in Parliament. Canada’s image as a mainly liberal nation may soon be gone if the Conservatives can rule for the next four years.

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