Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect my actual opinions.

June 04, 2004

A minority opinion

The latest public opinion polls seem to point to either a Liberal or Conservative minority. Even if we assume -- and this is a stretch -- that polls can be trusted, given the tendency of Canadian voters to swing wildly during the election run-up, this is still bad news for Harper's Tories.

In the event of a party winning fewer than 50% + 1 of the seats in parliament, the current prime minister (in this case, of course, the Liberals' Paul Martin) has a choice. He can either resign, in which case the governor general would call upon Harper to attempt to form a coalition and obtain the necessary quota of seats, or he can stay as prime minister. It's not hard to guess which road Paul Martin would take. (Note: Technically it's the cabinet that is given the choice, but I shall refer just to the prime minister, the head of the cabinet, for the sake of simplicity.)

If he stays and his government faces a vote of no confidence (which would happen more or less immediately), and if that vote is lost, he again has two choices: resign and let Harper try to make a coalition, or ask the governor general to dissolve parliament once more and call another election. The govenor general can refuse another election and force Martin to step down, but that wouldn't happen for one very good reason: the Tories have no friends in parliament, and could not form a viable, stable coalition.

There's no possible way that either the left-wing NDP or the centre-left Liberals would consider a coalition with the right-wing Harper. His only choice, and the only party that would even think about joining him in a coalition, is the Bloc Quebecois. But the Bloc is even more left-wing than the Liberals, and its members would have serious misgivings about teaming up with the Tories (they've even supported the Liberals, their archrivals, in order to defeat Tory motions in the past).

But even more importantly, the Bloc is a separatist party. Minority governments have a very difficult balancing act: their every move must be delicately crafted not only to keep the support of their coalition partners, but also the support of the voters. If, at any time, a minority government loses a major vote, that's considered a vote of no confidence and the above rules apply. The prime minister must either resign or call another election. Voters must be kept on side at all times, in case a vote is lost and an election called.

This is a big problem for Harper, and for Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe. If they really were to get into bed together, Harper would lose his support in federalist Ontario -- and no-one can win an election without that province on board -- and Duceppe would lose the support of separatist socialist Quebeckers, who would not only see his participation in the federal government as an act of validation towards an institution they despise, but also resent his involvement with a right-wing party.

Despite initial flirtations both Harper and Duceppe have declared they won't chum up with each other in the event of a Tory minority, with only one possible consequence: Martin would decide to stay on as prime minister and form a coalition with one or more of the other left-leaning parties, most likely the NDP, who would delight in the prospect of finally achieving a degree of influence in federal politics.


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