Canadians spoke out Monday and finally voted out the Conservative party, which had been leading the country for almost a decade, putting the Liberals, under leader Justin Trudeau, in power.
The results were not entirely surprising, but may have come as a shock to some after the left-leaning New Democratic Party – which had been the official opposition for the past four years – started the election campaign with a massive lead in the polls. By the end of the night, however, the social democrats had dropped from 95 to 44 seats in Parliament.
So, what happened to Canada's left?
When campaigning first began some three months ago, the NDP looked set to take the elections. It was easy. More than 70 percent of Canadians already said they wanted a change from the Conservative government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been moving toward decreasing civil liberties in the name of “fighting terrorism” and backing away from Canada’s environmental and human rights commitments, all while diminishing corporate taxes and social services.
The NDP already had a major advantage to be the positioned as the party to fulfill the desire for change, having been the official opposition party since 2011, for the first time in its history. During the 2011 election, the party and then leader Jack Layton were seen by many as promoting progressive policies against the Conservatives.
Historically, the NDP has always been relegated to third or fourth party status in the Canadian parliament. Though it has held power in some provinces, it had never really been considered a serious contender for federal power. This was left to the Liberal and Conservative parties. Though there were occasions that the NDP supported minority Liberal governments, helping usher in progressive policies, such as Canada’s famous single-payer healthcare system.
Under the leadership of Layton – who died from cancer shortly after the last election – the NDP opposed the conservative government on key areas including extending Canada's mission in Afghanistan, and the 2006 and 2007 federal budgets, which included major spending cuts.
Many Canadians believed in the party's progressive positions and turned out to support it in the 2011 elections, voting in a record 103 seats for the NDP.
Canadians seemed inspired by stances taken by Layton’s successor, Tom Mulcair, particularly his principled opposition in the House of Commons to Harper’s right-wing agenda. The NDP’s opposition to the highly-controversial Bill C-51, which opponents accused of attacking civil liberties, led to a significant bump in support.
The Liberals under Trudeau, on the other hand, voted in favor of Bill C-51 out of fear that the Conservatives would paint them as soft on terrorism during the election. A logic defended by Trudeau himself.
However, the NDP during the election failed to live up to its progressive standards in the 2015 election, instead putting forward a tepid platform.
In the words of the left-wing icon and activist Naomi Klein, “The Libs ran left and soared. The NDP moved right and crashed. Now it's up to the public to turn cynical strategy into action,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
David McNally, Political Science Professor at Toronto's York University, also said the NDP loss of support was due to its lack of a progressive campaign.
“[The NDP] saw the polls early on and believed that the desire to get rid of Harper was so strong that they, being the number two, believed that all they had to do was avoid scaring people off,” McNally told teleSUR.
“The last thing they wanted to do was come up with some bold message that might peel away from 5-10 percent of voters who would otherwise go to them. So they sat on their hands and put out the most cautious message, thinking the election was theirs,” added McNally.
This strategy by the NDP leadership was predicated on the assumption that the Liberals would continue to flounder under Trudeau. However the Liberal leader exceeded expectations on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the NDP itself inadvertently helped to foster Trudeau’s success by joining with the Conservatives in trying to paint the young Trudeau as too inexperienced to lead.
One of the most important policy decisions that shaped the NDP's campaign was its decision to maintain a balanced budget, continuing on with the Conservative policy of putting budget cuts ahead of social services or stimulating the economy.
The Liberals on the other hand, took a more drastic stance. The party promised to put austerity measures aside and run a CAD$7.5 billion (some US$5.8 billion) deficit per year for the next four years in order to stimulate the economy. The party also announced that it would be able to balance its budget at the end of that four-year term, which it planned to achieve by implementing other measures such as taxing the wealthiest Canadians, and cracking down on tax evasion.
The federal Liberal party seemingly took a page from their provincial cousins in the province of Ontario, who in the 2014 election also ran a campaign to the left of the NDP. That strategy also worked for the Ontario Liberals, who were given a majority government.
According to the polls, things started to turn sour for the NDP in late August after the party announced its commitment to balance the budget. They started out leading the three parties, but ended in third place in the last polls before the elections, hovering around 24 percent.
“It was a disaster and it should have been predictable, because what we saw in this campaign, was once again an attempt by our social democrats, the New Democratic Party, to run as fiscal conservatives,” said McNally.
The NDP also seemed to misjudge the mood of voters, who did not just want a change of prime minister but a new direction for the country, something the Liberals successfully tapped into.
The NDP found itself in the difficult position of trying to convince voters they were the more progressive choice, even though the rival Liberals sounded more progressive than the NDP.
Realizing its mistake, the NDP tried, in vain, to restore its position as the left alternative, coming out strongly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With the shift coming with only two weeks left in the campaign, it proved to be too little, too late.
On election day, the party came out with just under 20 percent of the vote, being left with only 44 seats in Parliament, after having lost half of its previous seats.
“The Left blew an opportunity in this election,” said McNally.
Some NDP insiders have blamed the defeat on their anti-xenophobic stance during the campaign. The Conservative fear-mongering Islamophobia did bleed support from the NDP in the province of Quebec, where much of the party’s support was found. This did change the dynamic of the race, but the Liberals also sided against the Conservatives and they ultimately cruised to victory.
The Liberal’s overwhelming victory, which outpaced predictions, is also attributed to the collapse of the NDP vote. When electors saw that the alternative to Harper’s Conservatives was the Liberal party and not the NDP, many who intended to vote for the NDP switched to the Liberals at the last minute.
“The NDP generals are fighting the last war, by which I mean they're trying to preserve their credibility in the age of neoliberalism,” said McNally, referring to the party's determination to stick to a balanced budget. “The new war is how do you capture the imagination of millions of people who are fed up with austerity, who are fed up with massive levels of youth unemployment, who are fed up with growing social inequality and deteriorating public services.”
According to McNally, Britain's Jeremy Corbyn represents the new war, as does the U.S.'s Bernie Sanders, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
After failing to lead the party into government, NDP leader Mulcair is widely expected to resign or be pushed out. However many of the leftist NDP members of Parliament, such as Megan Leslie and Peggy Nash, lost their seats Monday, meaning a leftist contender for leader is not immediately obvious.
It will be interesting now to see how Canada's left and its social democratic party will respond.
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