On September 20th Canadians went to the polls for the second time in two years. The result was, despite a tumultuous election and wildly fluctuating opinion polls, a legislature with virtually the same make-up as before.
However, in this case the maintenance of the status quo belies a large possible impact on Canadian politics going forward. To understand the results of this election, its best if we explore how each party fared individually and what the outcome of the election actually means for each of them.
The Liberals, Canada’s centrist party, called this election back in August when their poll numbers and those of their leader Justin Trudeau were high. However, the Majority Government which they sought soon evaporated as very quickly the tide of public opinion turned against them. Rather than cruising to an easy victory, they spent a good deal of the campaign fighting to maintain control of government and against accusations that they had dangerously called an election during COVID for selfish motives (though this is likely the reason they did it). As such, though absolute victory eluded them, the final result is hardly a defeat: with 158 of the 338 seats in the Canadian parliament (1 more than they won in 2019), the Liberals are the largest party and will form government. Though many Liberals may find this result frustrating, as they will only form a minority government and therefore be forced to work with other parties to get their legislation across, it nonetheless is certainly a relief to those who feared they may lose government entirely. Trudeau in particular is likely sleeping easier now, since his leadership has weathered another election. Therefore, whether this counts as a win or a loss for the Liberals is hard to say and in the long term will likely depend on whether Canadians remember and resent being called to the polls by Trudeau’s Liberals during the pandemic. For now, we might call this a draw for the party.
The Conservatives (called the Tories, as they are in the UK), Canada’s right-wing party, are the unequivocal losers of this election. Once an election winning machine, the Tories have struggled at the polls ever since Trudeau took over the Liberals and defeated them in 2015. This trend finally looked like it might be reversed the polls began to show the Tories gaining ground on the Liberals mere days after the election was called. Towards the end of August and through much of September the Tories even became the favourite to win the election, but towards the end of the campaign the Liberals’ vote consolidated and the Tories found themselves in possession of precisely the same number of seats as they had before the election. This is certainly a huge disappointment for the party, but an especially big disappointed for the Tory leader Erin O’Toole. Though he has yet to resign, it remains likely that O’Toole will be ousted from leadership due to this defeat (as the former leader Andrew Scheer was in 2019). This may have big consequences for the party, since O’Toole came to power promising a more Progressive Conservative leadership (that may sound like an oxymoron, but it is a reference to the Progressive Conservative Party which was once hugely influential within Canadian politics) focused on fiscal issues, and so his defeat may see the Tories take a right-wing turn. It is also worth noting that the Tories actually won the popular vote by a slim margin (this is thanks to the huge concentration of support in western provinces like Alberta) and so it is possible that we may even see the Tories take up the issue of electoral reform.
The New Democratic Party (the NDP), Canada’s socialist party, had another disappointing outing this election. Back in 2011, the NDP had their best election ever when they won 103 seats and were for the first time able to form the Official Opposition. To many it seemed that the party’s time had finally come and so the NDP leadership became focused on winning, rather than just aiming to prop up a Liberal minority as it had many times in the past. The 2015 election saw these successes vanish, however, and the party’s status dwindled, rendering it once more a minor party. Along with the 2019 election, this election seems to confirm that the NDP’s success a decade ago was merely a fluke and that its shot at forming government is permanently gone. Despite this, the party is likely to be pleased with their 25 seats (one more than in the last election) as it is enough to act as the prop for the Liberal minority government. Its also definitely a good enough result to keep Jagmeet Singh as the party’s leader, since even though his attempts at reaching out to young voters (attempts which notably included playing video games with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) did not produce big gains, they were successful enough to keep the party relevant. Therefore, as it is for the Liberals, this election is a mixed result for the NDP.
The Bloc Québécois (known simply as the Bloc), a nationalist political party geared towards Québec’s interests and sovereignty, are the unequivocal winners of the night even though it may not seem it at first glance. Ever since its foundation in 1991, the Bloc has commanded massive support in the province of Québec (large enough that in 1993 it was the second largest party in parliament!). However, as mentioned, in 2011 the NDP won big for the first time and that win was built on the collapse of the Bloc (they were reduced from 47 seats down to 4). This was followed up by another poor turnout in 2015 where they managed to win only 10 seats. At the time there was a good deal of pontification regarding how this signaled the end of Québec separatism and how the Bloc would never recover. Yet they did recover in 2019 where, under their new leader Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc won 32 seats, enough to make them the third party in parliament. On the 20th Blanchet and the Bloc were able to improve upon their seat count by two, thereby putting to bed the idea that Québec nationalism was dead. Indeed, Québec nationalism is likely in a strong political position, as the 34 seats that the Bloc won means they are more than big enough to prop up the Liberals when needed and likely to get some of their legislation passed in the process. Though separatism is likely to remain off the table for the foreseeable future (thanks in large part to Québec’s provincial government being currently run by the popular Coalition Avenir Québec, a Québec nationalist party that does not advocate for separatism), it is almost certain that Québec nationalists will feel emboldened by this outcome to press ahead with issues important to their agenda both in Ottawa and in Québec City. (Notably controversial bills that relate to the use of the French language and the display of religious symbols that are likely to be on firmer ground thanks to this win). Considering all this, the result from this latest election is certain to have Blanchet and Bloc supporters in a very good mood.
The Green Party did not have a good night. Before the election, the party and its new leader, Annamie Paul, weathered a massive internal schism about Paul’s leadership that saw them lose one of their only three seats in parliament. Though the Greens have never been a major force in Canadian politics, this election is likely to see Paul’s position eroded further and it would surprise none if we were to see a new leadership competition in the coming months.
The People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a far-right party which shares much of its politics with Donald Trump, is the newest party in Canada. Formed in 2018 after the former Tory MP Maxime Bernier failed to win the leadership of the Conservatives and created the party in protest, the PPC has never succeeded in winning a seat. Despite this, the party may be the single biggest winner of the evening. Although the party failed again to win any seats, it did succeed in more than tripling the number of votes it attracted (from 1.62% to 5%). These gains were almost certainly won on the back of a wave of anti-lockdown frustration, yet they may also fail to dissipate once COVID passes, as the PPC’s success probably reflects osmosis of far-right ideas from the US. Though they won nothing this time, it may indeed only be a matter of time until the PPC does.
Though the division of seats in parliament may look the same, a closer examination like this one reveals quite the opposite, allowing us to draw some conclusions regarding the future impact of this election. Firstly, the Liberals’ victory might prove a pyrrhic one, as voters may remember this election as a selfish attempt by Trudeau to win a majority. This may lead to internal shifts within the party, perhaps even Trudeau stepping down before the next election, and will almost certainly see the Liberals avoiding any big policy pushes that would risk “rocking the boat” more than they already have. Secondly, the Tories’ defeat, along with the PPC’s gains, may lead to a further right swing in Canadian politics as Progressive Conservative politics is eschewed for something of the same hue as the US’ Republican Party. This may mean that, down the road, a much more right-wing Conservative Party may take power and may go out of its way to shake up international politics in ways that far-right leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro would approve of. Finally, the Bloc have ensured the continued relevance of Québec nationalism and are certain to fight for more devolved rights for the province. Though none speak openly of separatism at the moment, the events in Scotland are being keenly watch by folks like Blanchet. Should, therefore, the Scottish National Party succeed in its mission to make Scotland independent, it is almost certain that the there will be greater agitation for Québec to follow suit.
The seat count may be roughly the same, but Canadian politics certainly has been changed by this election!
Featured image by Anna Tis on Pexels.