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Canada’s election proves surprisingly interesting

The words “dramatic” and “Canadian election” seldom go together.

Even Canadians are mostly bored by their politics, other than spikes of interest when Quebeckers vote on whether to separate from the rest of Canada (the last time: 16 years ago. Answer: a close “no”) or the occasional election fought over more than just the spoils of power (probably not since 1988, when they voted, essentially, on whether to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. Answer: a grudging “yes”).

But the just-concluded campaign that on Monday gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party its long-sought majority government qualifies as suspenseful, at least. Going into election day, the rising fortunes of the socialist New Democrats had not only put that Conservative victory in doubt, but raised the eye-rubbing specter of the left-wing wing party actually winning enough seats to take power in a coalition government.

The New Democrat surge came almost out of nowhere, the union-based party emerging as a force only in mid-campaign. Voters, especially in Quebec, suddenly embraced its leader, Jack Layton, who had never generated much enthusiasm in three previous elections. This time, he was seen as the sunniest leader in a campaign defined by attack ads and accusations of ethical lapses.

Layton and the NDP fell short in the end, but you wouldn’t have known from their huge smiles on election night. The perennially third-place party pulled in a record 30% of the votes, winning enough seats to return to Parliament as the official opposition for the first time.

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Canadians now find themselves, after almost a decade of tepid minority governments, with a two-party system, a right-left divide between a conservative government and a socialist opposition. Harper can at last govern without looking over his shoulder or cutting deals with other parties, secure he has the votes in Parliament to govern as he pleases.

Since he became prime minister in 2006, his opponents had warned against just that, contending that Harper harbors a secret, extreme right-wing agenda held in check only by his minority status. Give him an unrestrained majority, they warned, and the dark side of Harper — a politician known as a tactical wizard but with an aversion to charm — will be unleashed.

Harper tried to show a bit of uncharacteristic warmth after his win, joking that his staff had cajoled him into swilling champagne from a bottle though he hardly drinks. But he vowed there would be no veering from his carefully chosen political middle ground: hard on crime, low on taxes and a defender of Canada’s public healthcare system.

The wind Americans felt blowing down from Canada on Monday was the collective exhale of the Canadian business class. Canadian pride used to derive from a self-satisfied sense that they were the “gentle” North Americans, in contrast to those who embraced a rawer capitalism to the south. Canada had free, universal healthcare. Less gun crime. It took a pass on George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

But since 2008, Canadian bragging rights have been based on how their economy survived the worst ravages of the global recession. Sure, there was need for a bit of a spending stimulus (everybody was doing it). But the tightly regulated Canadian banks emerged largely unscathed, held up by many as a model of financial sanity. There was no wide-scale housing bust. And an economy once criticized for being overly reliant on commodities started to look pretty good in an era of scarcity and high demand from China.

All that seemed threatened by the prospect of a New Democrat-led coalition. Layton started the campaign with little thought of winning, scattering promises to spend more public money with little worry of being called to account. Then came his inexplicable rise in the polls.

Why, a perplexed business community asked, with the economy doing so well, would we shoot ourselves in the foot by voting for a party rooted in organized labor?

The Conservative majority has now squelched that boardroom panic. Harper has four years to govern, while Layton will have to wrestle a party of rookies into a viable opposition. More than half of the New Democrats’ 102 members of Parliament come from Quebec, the second-largest province, where many of its candidates were mere place-holders for a party that never expected to seriously compete. Layton’s new team includes such unlikely members as Ruth Ellen Brosseau, 21, an assistant manager at a university pub who speaks little French and took time off during the campaign to vacation in Las Vegas.

The New Democrats benefited from Quebec’s habit of swinging massively behind a single party. For the last seven elections, that party had been the Bloc Quebecois, which was dedicated to making the case for Quebec independence from a platform in the federal government.

But the Bloc was the big loser in Monday’s vote, discovering that even Quebeckers who want their own country were fed up with a party that could talk of nothing else. The Bloc was reduced to a rump of four seats, not enough to qualify for official party status.

The other losers were the Liberals, who once saw themselves as Canada’s Natural Governing Party but who have failed to find their voice in recent years. Leader Michael Ignatieff, a former journalist and Harvard University academic, resigned Tuesday after seeing the party’s support collapse to a historic low.

Some strategists on the left argue that only a merger of the Liberals and New Democrats can ever expect to supplant the Conservatives, a move that may gain momentum after the Liberals’ crushing defeat. But even as he left politics, Ignatieff warned that such an alignment would ill-serve a country where most voters still see themselves in the middle.

“I think the surest guarantee of a future for the Liberal Party of Canada is four years of Conservative right-wing government and four years of NDP left-wing opposition,” he said. “I think after that experience Canadians will, I hope, again discover why you have a Liberal Party in the center.”

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Wallace is the Foreign Editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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