Sunday, October 18, 2009

The majority conundrum

While the focus of current discussion is about a possible Conservative majority, the reality is that our regionally and ideologically fragmented system makes a majority problematic even when a party seems well positioned to do so. Many believe Harper’s Conservatives presently are in that position now. However, one needs majority type polls at the end of an election campaign not in hypothetical horse races in the media. Some recent polls point to just such a hypothetical majority (Ekos, Strategic Counsel and Angus Reid) but others (Decima, Ipsos) don’t. This is largely because of differences in the Ontario sub-samples, which suggests some instability in Ontario opinion, and that its ultimate direction remains unclear.

As TC has touched on before, winning a majority is extremely difficult in the current Canadian party system. One could make the case, for example, that the Conservatives were headed for a majority in 2008, but fumbled the opportunity by getting the politics of culture wrong in Quebec. A misstep like that could occur in any region. We forget that the Conservatives also lost seats in Newfoundland as a consequence of their feud with Danny Williams. The point is that it is enormously difficult to have everything work right at once in enough regions to secure 155 ridings.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the Bloc Qu├ębecois control a group of francophone ridings in Quebec usually numbering around 50. They dipped as low as 38 in 2000 when they were hurt by the unpopularity at the time of the PQ Bouchard regime in Quebec City. They won 49 seats in 2008.

That means that to win the 155 seats needed for a majority, another party must win 59.8% of the remaining seats. If we look at history in the pre-Bloc era (but after 1957 when the number of seats won by third parties began to grow significantly), we see only the Diefenbaker landslide majority of 1958 (78.5% of the seats) and a similar win by Mulroney in 1984 (74.8% of the seats) exceed that benchmark. By this standard, the Trudeau majority of 1968 (58.3% of the seats) almost but not quite qualifies, while his majorities in 1974 (53.4% of the seats) and 1980 (53.4% of the seats) do not.

It is highly unlikely there will be an election before the spring of 2010 – an eternity in politics. The outcome is more likely than not to be another minority. When we see the Bloc vote collapse the conditions for majority governments in Canada can emerge once again. The recent Ignatieff meltdown does suggest another scenario for a majority, but there are many ways for the Conservatives to go astray between now and voting day when it eventually comes.

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