US & Canada

Canadian elections reshape political landscape

Canadian Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to supporters following his victory speech at his federal election night headquarters in Calgary, Alberta, on 2 May 2011
Image caption The scale of Stephen Harper's victory came as a surprise to some

Canada's Conservative party has emerged victorious in the country's general election, a vote that has also resulted in a huge shake-up for the opposition.

In this new topsy-turvy world, the previously third-placed party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), has become the official opposition and the once mighty Liberal Party has been soundly humiliated by its worst-ever showing.

Having led two minority Conservative governments since 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has now earned a majority mandate, having won 167 of the 308 seats in the Canadian parliament.

Although the opinion polls seemed to show the Tories would regain power, the scale of victory came as a surprise to some political observers.

Mr Harper ran a tightly-controlled, disciplined campaign, concentrating largely on his government's record in managing the economy, and promising to lower taxes and tackle the country's debt.

Canada has emerged from a recession as one of the strongest among the G7 group of countries.

One of the party's biggest breakthroughs on election night was cracking metropolitan Canada, particularly the party's sweeping gains in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto and the surrounding area.

Image caption Jack Layton is another winner in the election

Ezra Levant, a conservative commentator for the Sun News Network, says the switch of support of visible minorities and new immigrants from the Liberals to the Conservatives is a significant demographic change.

"There's this whole other media in Canada, ethnic newspapers, TV and radio stations in other languages that our parliamentary media is just not plugged into. In those media battlefields, the conservative brand is dominant," says Mr Levant.

Mr Harper has pointedly promised however not to open debate on more controversial issues, such as abortion.

Indeed Mr Levant believes Canadians are unlikely to notice huge policy changes now that Mr Harper has achieved his long-coveted majority.

"Most of his changes have already happened incrementally. For instance, Canada's now a new military power. We were not that way 10 years ago. We have 560 troops enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya... That's a change in the Canadian identity."


But the NDP led by the popular and feisty Jack Layton is promising to hold Mr Harper to account. The left-of-centre party had its best ever showing, taking more than 100 seats.

The NDP achieved this by demolishing the separatist Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, a party that has dominated politics in the French-speaking province for the past 20 years. It was reduced to just four seats, too few to even qualify for official party status in the Canadian parliament.

Susan Riley, a political journalist with the Ottawa Citizen, says people in Quebec were ready for a change and that Mr Layton suddenly caught their attention.

"He was the most optimistic, least negative and the friendliest. A down-home easy-going guy. It may be a trivial way to choose a leader, but it's been a very dark campaign."

At a rally in Toronto, Mr Layton was cheered as if he were the victor by his adoring supporters.

By contrast, it was a catastrophic night for the Liberal Party and its leader, the academic and author Michael Ignatieff. The party suffered its worst-ever result and Mr Ignatieff was further humiliated by losing his own seat.

The party dominated Canadian politics in the 20th Century, giving the country famous prime ministers such as Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and Jean Chretien in the '90s.

It has now been reduced to a little more than a rump.

Speaking to supporters, Mr Ignatieff took responsibility for what he called a "historic defeat".

"Democracy teaches hard lessons and we have to learn them all," he said.

"We have to be big enough, open-hearted enough, courageous enough, to read the lessons the Canadian people have taught us."

Redrawing the map

It is the realignment of the opposition parties that will change the landscape of Canadian politics.

There will certainly be calls for the Liberals and the New Democrats to merge, in an effort to unite the left-of-centre vote.

And by choosing the federalist New Democrats over the separatists, Quebec may have triggered a renewed debate over its place in Canada's federation.

But Ms Riley doubts there will be immediate pressure on the issue.

"'Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney took us down that path 25 years ago in an ambitious attempt to mollify Quebec and ease fears that it was going to be overwhelmed by the English majority. It didn't work then.

"Many Canadians in Quebec and in the rest of the country have turned the page and are more concerned with current economic issues."

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