As the results began trickling in on Canada’s 41st federal election, it quickly became clear that it was to be both the worst of nights and the best of nights. The election of a majority Conservative government under Stephen Harper cast a long and ominous shadow over the proceedings. The Tories now have a lock on Parliament, controlling both the House of Commons and the Senate. With such power we can expect them to move ahead aggressively with a host of pet projects on which their hand was stayed in minority governments: eliminating the long gun registry, federal seat redistribution (that will no doubt benefit the Tories), ending state subsidies to political parties, to name a few. And since Stephen Harper is an ideological leader bent on irreversibly transforming Canadian politics and society, we can expect him to impose his neoconservative agenda in such areas as environmental policy, foreign policy, immigration policy, social programs and Supreme Court appointments. And we should brace for a spate of covert and overt attacks on the rights of women, First Nations, visible minorities and the gay community.
However, the election night results also harboured some hope. The Canadian people did not rush to embrace Harper’s Conservatives; in fact, support for the Tories rose less than 2%. Harper’s majority rests on a slender 39% of the popular vote. Most voters opposed him, while another 39% of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all. This suggests that the Conservatives’ grip on state power is hardly assured beyond this term.
The decimation of the federal Liberal Party in this election is a welcome development. Masquerading as social liberals for nearly two decades, all the while ushering in brutal neoliberal economic policies under Chretien and Martin, it was arguably the Liberals who laid the groundwork for Canada’s lurch to the right. Whether this party can rebuild and what form it will take is an open question.
Needless to say, the most promising result to come out of election night was the stunning breakthrough in Québec of the NDP, which won 59 of the province’s 75 seats (and 103 nationwide).Québec MPs are now a majority of the federal NDP caucus and they are typically younger and more radical than the rest of the party. This could help shift the NDP to the left on a host of issues. But holding this new national coalition together within the NDP will not be easy. The NDP is unlikely to take root in Québec unless it finds a way to accommodate Québec’s national aspirations within a larger vision of a united Canada. The election of federal Green party leader Elizabeth May was also a positive sign, attesting to voters’ appetite for a wider range of political choices and defying the small-mindedness of those who sought to exclude May from the pre-election debates.
Silver linings notwithstanding, the political clouds are undeniably dark. Even with an energized and more leftwing NDP Official Opposition, the prospects for effective parliamentary challenges to the Conservatives are limited. Harper’s contempt for Parliament, centralization of power, message-control, suppression of information and draconian enforcement of party discipline will only scale new heights with the advent of a majority government. Clearly, the most significant political work now needs to occur outside of parliament.
The way forward involves organizing broad and publicly visible opposition to Conservative policies, and developing innovative ways to mobilize the substantial segment of the electorate that is disaffected – mostly poor and working people in all their diversity. Counting ballots, Gramsci once observed, is only the “final ceremony of a long process.” What matters is what we do in between.