Canadian shake-up: Conservatives win but opposition makes head-turning gains

Monday's national election gave the Conservative Party a big victory but the socialist-rooted New Democratic Party showed surprising strength.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up after giving his victory speech in Calgary, Alberta, May 2. Harper won his coveted majority government in elections Monday in Canada.

Canadians woke up to a strikingly changed political landscape today, largely because of one national politician’s charisma and another’s lack of it.

National elections yesterday produced Canada’s first majority government in seven years. At the same time, it all but wiped out Canada’s traditional ruling party, the centrist Liberal Party, and propelled the historically marginal socialists to the important role of official opposition. Observers are already talking about the permanent demise of the Liberals, which has governed the country for most of the past century.

“This is a huge defeat. It’s almost as if the Democrats were elected in only three States, and it changes the map of Canadian federal politics,” said political scientist Stephen Clarkson.

Pollsters had predicted a poor showing for the Liberals since the start of the campaign five weeks ago, but no one expected it to do as badly as it did. It lost half its seats and for the first time in history, finished in third place. That gives its leader, former Harvard scholar and internationally reputed journalist Michael Ignatieff, the dubious status of the man who sank the Liberals to new depths. Mr. Ignatieff, who also lost his own seat, resigned as party leader this morning.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), a party with socialist roots, and its cheerful leader Jack Layton secured 103 seats, nearly tripling its strength in Parliament with a historically strong showing in Quebec. The NDP has played the role the role of Canada’s social conscience for decades but has never won more than 44 seats.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won 167 seats, well past the 155 he needed to win a majority. After overseeing a series of weak coalition governments, Mr. Harper now has a strong mandate to push the traditionally centrist Canadian political agenda further to the right. He has promised to spend billions of dollars to build new jails and get tough on crime, and has been a strong defender of the environmentally unfriendly Alberta oil sands project.

The Liberal Party's fall

Observers are still unsure how the NDP party will use its new status in Parliament or what lies ahead for the Liberals, but they agree that the surprising election results largely came down to personality.

Ignatieff returned to Canada to enter politics six years ago, with a stellar reputation as an author, journalist, and head of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights. Party faithful hoped he could use his intellect and international experience to create a sort of Trudeau-mania – the craze that swept the nation in 1968 when former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau became leader. It was a tall order, considering the Liberals were still struggling to rebuild after a major political funding scandal in Quebec.

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Ignatieff ran a textbook perfect campaign that targeted middle class concerns and featured spontaneous question and answer sessions during which he talked about everything from brain surgery to agriculture. He related well to ordinary people on the campaign trail but still came across as wooden and unapproachable during nationally televised leaders debates, where most Canadians got to see him.

“He was smart but he wasn’t charismatic,” said Mr. Clarkson. “He was brought in as a magic bullet and all he did was shoot the party in the foot.”

In the end, Ignatieff could not overcome the Liberal’s internal struggles or the effects of aggressive preelection attack ads run by Conservatives that questioned his motives for coming home and suggested his loyalties lie with the United States.

Layton's charisma

Mr. Layton, on the other hand, surprised everyone with his energy and optimism – qualities that helped win over many voters who would normally have favored the Liberals. His party started out in third place. Layton was recovering from hip surgery and prostate cancer, walked with a crutch and looked so unwell when he started the campaign that there were questions about whether he could withstand the pressures of campaigning across such a vast country. But after two impressive performances in nationally televised leaders’ debates Layton starting whipping voters into what passes for a frenzy in Canadian politics.

“He had the best lines, he didn’t hector the way Ignatieff did, and he didn’t repeat himself,” said Nelson Wiseman, an expert on Canadian politics at the University of Toronto.

Layton, who grew up in Montreal, particularly impressed Quebec residents who appreciated his Quebecois-sounding French, use of street language and promises to pay attention to Quebec’s regional concerns.

As Layton’s momentum grew across Canada, he replaced his crutch with a cane, which he sometimes waved around for emphasis and supporters starting coming by the hundreds, sometimes standing in the rain to get a glimpse of him.

Layton’s showing in Quebec, where he won all but three seats, is especially significant for two reasons. He wiped out the Bloc Quebecois, which no longer has the status of an official national party, and because his is the only party that can claim to represent both English and French-speaking Quebec.

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