LAST week's election in Canada produced what is probably the most sweeping turnabout in the entire history of democratic politics.
Where else can we find in a stable democracy an election the equivalent of what just happened in Canada - with the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP), having won 169 of Parliament's 295 seats in the preceding contest, plummeting to just two seats in this one? Or an election where two parties, the Reform Party and the Bloc Qucois (BQ), which earned no seats at all 5 years earlier, now gained 106, 36 percent of all constituencies?
To be sure, the Canadian results reflected in part only the normal rhythm of democratic politics. Led by a young Quebecker, Brian Mulroney, the PCP came to power in 1984 and then won re-election in 1988. During this nine-year span in which the Conservatives ruled, Canadians frequently found themselves out of sorts with the state of public affairs - with the continuing constitutional confrontation over Quebec's status, the performance of the economy, and relations with the United States, especially involving the free-trade agreements. By October 1993, it was ``time for a change.''
But some extraordinary new political developments have been added on top of these ordinary circumstances. For a quarter-century now, Canada has been experiencing a political transformation which, while entirely peaceful and democratic, is nonetheless far-reaching.
We can begin to understand it by looking first to the country's two historic major parties, the PCP and the Liberal Party (LP). Both names are familiar-sounding to Americans, but in fact both originated in political traditions different from those of the US. The Canadian parties were conservative and liberal more in the European than in the American sense of the terms.
European conservatism embodied a defense of the state, initially in the form of the institutions of monarchy and aristocracy - not a claim for limited government. The latter, together with a defense of free markets, emerging business interests, and the like, has been the province of European liberalism.
In recent decades, though, Canada's LP has been evolving from its historic roots into a moderate left-of-center party along the lines of the US Democrats. For a time it left an opening on the left that was filled by two social democratic parties, both of which are today members of the Socialist International.
The Parti Qucois (and now its ally/affiliate, the BQ) reflect this development imperfectly because they have gained much support not from a New Left philosophy but from French Canadian nationalism. The other alliance, the New Democratic Party (NDP), has offered itself as a conventional left-liberal party, and for a time enjoyed considerable success as a clearer left alternative to the evolving Liberals.
But contemporary Canada probably doesn't offer a sufficient base for a full-fledged social democratic party. Last month, with the LP moving to undercut it, and beset by all sorts of problems as the governing party in Ontario and British Columbia, the NDP stumbled badly, going from the 43 seats it had won in the previous Parliament to just nine, and from 20 percent of the popular vote to 7 percent.
Under Mulroney, the PCP seemed to many Americans to have become almost a sister party to the Republicans. He established close ties with Ronald Reagan and then George Bush. Abandoning its historic British-Canadian nationalism, with its anti-US tinge, the PCP also took up the torch of free trade.
But the Progressive Conservatives are in no sense American-style conservatives. In particular, they are vastly more supportive of a broad and expanding role for government than are the Republicans. Mulroney and Reagan apparently liked each other, but the two men were far apart philosophically. The Canadian would never be heard describing modern government and the welfare state as ``the problem, not the solution.''
In fact, in the American sense of the term, Canada never had a conservative party until very recently. Enter Preston Manning and the Reform Party. Mr. Manning has often been called, in the US press, ``the Ross Perot of Canada,'' but this is nonsense. He might more accurately be thought of as Canada's Barry Goldwater.
Listening to Manning this past campaign, an American could not help but be struck by the echoes of Mr. Goldwater's movement. In both, a new-style conservatism was being born. Manning is, it should be noted, a far better speaker than Goldwater was, and presents a friendlier TV personality.
Filling a void on the right, advocating curbs on the state, Reform surged to 19 percent of the popular vote in last month's elections (compared with the PC's 16 percent), and 52 seats. Strongest in western Canada, where they arose, the Reformers gained what was perhaps their most impressive share of the vote in Ontario, where 20 percent of the electorate backed them.
The next few years should test whether Canada now offers the kind of philosophic base needed to sustain a major US-style conservative party, and whether Reformers are adroit enough to build upon it, if the base is there. What's evident is that, in this year's election, voters wanting to choose ``conservative'' split into ``old'' and ``new'' camps, thus ensuring a sweeping Liberal majority in Parliament.