A weak mandate

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The Liberals will rule Canada for a fourth consecutive term but leading a minority government in cooperation with the left-leaning New Democratic Party, as Prime Minister Paul Martin's party fails to win an absolute majority.

in Toronto

Prime Minister Paul Martin campaigns in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 27, a day before polling.-CARLO ALLEGRI/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

THE Liberals will continue to rule Canada, though with reduced power. The ruling party hovered between confidence and fear in the 36-day run-up to the federal elections as opinion polls showed it and the Conservative Party in a dead heat. Although it won 135 of the 308 seats at stake, it fell 20 seats short of a majority and hence will join forces with the New Democratic Party (NDP), a left-leaning party, which secured 19 seats, to form the government. That still leaves the Liberals one short of a majority. A couple of recounts are to be held, and they hope the results will improve their numbers. The Liberals were in a similar situation 25 years ago. The Liberals, who won 172 seats in the 2000 elections and 155 seats in the 1997 elections, will not court the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which got 54 seats.

The Conservatives won 99 seats. Of the 308 ridings, seven are new owing to a redistribution of electoral boundaries.

Prime Minister Paul Martin surprised political observers when he called for elections just months after he took over the job from Jean Chretien in December last year. The takeover followed a protracted fight between Martin and Chretien, which almost threw the party into disarray. Chretien, who ushered in the Liberal era in 1993 and managed to retain power in the next two national elections, had to quit following pressure tactics and other means used by the Martin camp.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper at an election rally in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 27.-ADRIAN WYLD/CP/AP

By the time the election campaign came to a close, polls showed that the Liberals' popularity had slumped. This made Liberal Party members, especially those who belonged to the Chretien camp, and political pundits wonder if Martin's gamble of going in for early elections would pay off.

The Conservatives seemed stronger following the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party, and the election of a new leader, Stephen Harper. In the day-to-day campaign game of attack and counter-attack, both Martin and Harper made policy guffaws. Harper's pronouncements on some of the burning issues of the day probably cost the party votes - and seats.

As the results were out, Martin acknowledged that he "got the message" from the voters. Although the electorate wanted the Liberals back in office, it was not willing to give the Liberal leader victory on a platter. The winners secured 36.71 per cent of the popular vote, while the Conservatives got 29.61 per cent, Bloc Quebecois 12.40 per cent, and the NDP 15.69 per cent. The vote share of the Liberals and the Conservatives together showed a decline in their strength compared to the last elections.

Former Prime Minister and Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark's "endorsement" of Martin out of his frustration at not being able to prevent the merger of his party with the Canadian Alliance had caused ripples in the right-wing movement. Harper's views on the Supreme Court's role and other significant issues also went against the Conservatives.

As before, the Central Canadian province of Ontario helped the Liberals back to power with 75 of its 106 seats. The province has been the bedrock of Liberal support but this time it gave the Liberals 25 seats fewer than last time. (However, it must be remembered that Ontario gained three more ridings in the redistributed electoral map.) There were fears that Ontario voters would be apprehensive of the Liberals as the provincial government, headed by them, had imposed a premium on healthcare, thereby breaking one of their election promises. The Liberals had scored a landslide victory in the Ontario provincial election in 2003.

The Liberals' victory, more so their showing in Ontario, again raised the perennial bogey of "western alienation" - the deep-rooted feeling of alienation in western Canada owing to the east-centric policies of successive federal governments. This has been the favourite whipping horse of the right-wing parties, especially the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance. If former Reformers and Alliance members, in their new roles as dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives, did not raise the issue to a national fervour in the election campaigns, it was because they were seeking to garner Ontario votes. But the results have prompted right-wing writers to harp on this aspect.

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton at a campaign rally on June 10 in Toronto, Canada.-DONALD WEBER/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

In his campaign tours, Martin, an easterner, made desperate attempts to quell any fears the western voters, particularly in British Columbia, may have about Liberal rule by making last-minute trips to the province. Alberta, another Western province, is beyond the Liberals' conquest. It looks as if the trips were worth it, with the Liberals gaining three more seats - from five in 2000 to eight now. But what makes British Columbia important is that the lone independent elected to Parliament comes from this province. The key question is whether the Liberals will woo him to form a majority government. On the face of it, the Liberals would not want Chuck Chadman, the former Alliance member who quit the new Conservative Party after he lost the nomination and ran as an independent.

The results have turned the once-fierce rivals, the Liberals and the NDP, into strange bedfellows. What concessions NDP leader Jack Layton will squeeze out of Martin remains to be seen. Layton has already started giving hints of the bargains he would strike.

The Conservatives expect the coalition to collapse in six months or at the most a year's time , but both Martin and Layton have vowed that they will make it work. The Liberals and the NDP share common ground on some social and economic issues. But how they will hammer out suitable policies on contentious points, particularly healthcare and taxes, will be eagerly awaited. In a post-election speech, Layton promised to kick Martin on his shin every time the latter broke one of his poll promises.

Another ticklish issue that Layton has promised to bring to national attention is that of proportional representation. The stakes for it are high and it is hard to imagine that the Liberals or for that matter the Conservatives will support such a major electoral reform. One can see Layton's point here - though his party took a larger share of the popular vote than the Bloc, it has fewer seats. It is doubtful whether there will be any takers for his suggestion of holding a national referendum, a buzzword in constitutional matters, on this issue. That would be an agenda for the future; for the present he has to see how his party and the Liberals will cooperate to run the country.

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