With Canadians now headed to the polls, the curtain is falling on the longest, most expensive, and closest election campaigns in recent history.
But with most polls showing a tight race that could split three ways in many ridings, it raises the intriguing question of what happens after all the chips have fallen.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways the race could end. And one of them could leave Canadians scratching their heads about who will lead the country come October 20th.
Nothing unusual here. Canadians are well accustomed to majority governments. One of the parties wins a majority of seats, and takes all of the power. 30 new seats were added to parliament in the 2012 electoral boundary redistribution, making the “magic number” of seats a party needs to win a majority this year 170.
While the chances of a majority forming appear slim this year, UBC political science professor Max Cameron says it’s not out of the question.
“When it was a three way tie, there were lots of times during the campaign where it looked like a majority government was not within reach of any of the parties. It’s tightened up to become a close two way race, with the NDP sliding behind the other two parties.”
However pulling this off will be difficult for any of the parties, with Majority governments usually capturing somewhere in the range of 40% of the popular vote.
Minority Government, Liberals or NDP win most seats
Here, the party with the most seats forms government but needs support to pass key bills. Canadians have lived through three minority governments in the last decade, and Cameron says they’re not necessarily a bad thing.
“The minority government situation is something we’re more familiar with in Canada. Of the 29 elections since 1921, we’ve had 11 minority governments formed, and some of those governments have been very good. The Pearson two back-to-back minorities in the 1960’s brought us the Canada pension plan, medicare, bilingualism, the new Canadian flag. So you can get things done in those situations if you have a working agreement.”
Cameron says this outcome could go one of two ways. One is a straight minority government with the weaker party, propping up the stronger party through an informal deal.
The other possibility is a formal coalition, in which the parties actually share cabinet posts.
Cameron says that’s less likely, as coalitions are rare at Canada’s federal level and the Liberals have closed the door on the possibility, at least for the time being. He says if it does happen, it would likely be in a case where the Liberals and NDP win a similar number of seats.
Minority Government, Conservatives win most seats
First off, Stephen Harper could simply resign, and hand over power to the opposition parties, which together could out vote him.
Both the Liberals and NDP have said they won’t prop up the Conservatives, and Cameron says he thinks it would be tough for the Tories to govern very long in a minority.
But not impossible.
Because technically, until he resigns or loses a confidence motion, Harper remains Prime Minister.
“The prime minister has a lot of powers at his disposal, and one of those powers is not to begin parliament for some time,” Cameron says.
He says Harper could try to govern without calling MPs back to Ottawa for a period of time, thereby avoiding a confidence vote.
This is similar to how Harper survived a coalition attempt by his opponents in 2008, when he asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament. He says Harper could use that time to try and divide the opposition parties or paint them as making a naked power grab.
The Conservatives could then ask the Governor General to dissolve parliament and try for another election.
But there is precedent for the Governor General saying ‘No,’ and instead invite the opposition to try and form government.
Cameron says that outcome could throw Canada into a constitutional crisis, not seen since the “King-Byng” affair in 1926 (which you may remember from your high school social studies class).
In that case, the Governor General refused Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie’s request to dissolve parliament, instead giving the opposition Conservatives a shot. It was a short-lived disaster, and King won the ensuing election handily.
That’s why Cameron says for this scenario to work, the opposition parties would need to clearly lay out an agreement to cooperate, and present a plan to Governor General David Johnston.
“It has to be something the public can get behind. The party leaders actually do have to work together to say look, here is a common program, we have a mandate from the electorate, these are the things we are going to accomplish and we’re going to work together for a defined period of time to actually make the parliament work.”
Cameron says pulling this off could be tricky, particularly as the Conservatives have successfully framed the idea as undemocratic in the past.
But he says the Conservatives could face major political risks of their own in calling a new election, with an electorate already fed up from such a long, ugly campaign.