Canadians go to the polls
tonight to elect a new government, following the defeat of Liberal
prime minister Paul Martin in a no-confidence vote last November. The
opposition Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, has maintained a
consistent lead in the opinion polls and there seems little doubt that
Harper will be the new prime minister.

In Canada’s four-party system, however, things are never simple. The
accepted wisdom is that a party needs about 40% of the vote to win an
absolute majority of seats (so much for democracy), and the
Conservatives seem to be falling short of that. The latest poll
yesterday in the Toronto Globe and Mail,
which has been the most favourable for the Conservatives, put them at
37%, against 27% for the Liberals and 18% for the New Democrats.

The problem for the Conservatives is that they have no natural allies
among the other parties. If he fails to win an absolute majority,
Harper will govern with at least the tacit support of the Quebec Bloc.
But the only thing they really have in common is dislike of the
Liberals; the Bloc are separatists, hoping to eventually take Quebec
out of the federation, while Harper’s original political home, the
Reform Party, was founded largely as an anti-Quebec movement.

On the left, the NDP are now breathing down the necks of the Liberals,
trying to position themselves as the only viable alternative to
Conservative rule. First-past-the-post voting has always been cruel to
them, since their support is fairly evenly spread across the country;
in 2004 they won 15.7% of the vote but only 6.2% of the seats. This
time, disillusionment with the Liberals might be strong enough for the
NDP to make a breakthrough, but it could be that fear of a majority
Conservative government will still drive a last-minute swing back to
the Liberals.

The prospects of a Conservative minority government are being compared
to 1979, when Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark defeated Pierre
Trudeau’s Liberal government, but failed to win a majority. Clark’s
minority government lasted less than a year, and in 1980 Trudeau
returned to power for another term.

But a Conservative triumph tonight, even if short-lived, will still be
a boost for the right, and George W Bush will feel he has a friendlier northern neighbour.
Harper has so far parried Paul Martin’s somewhat feverish attempts to
play on anti-American feelings, and while admitting his pro-American
sympathies, has downplayed any suggestion of sending troops to Iraq –
an electoral downer in Canada as in most places.