The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Doug Ford’s win in Ontario must be a wake-up call against complacency

Doug Ford, Ontario's premier, during an election night event in Toronto on June 2. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg News)

After four years of provincial mismanagement and more than two years of inadequate pandemic measures, roughly 17 percent of eligible voters in Ontario reelected incumbent Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford with a majority government.

Final results are pending, but, according to early data, about 43 percent of Ontarians cast a ballot in the province’s 43rd general election — the lowest turnout in Ontario’s history. The governing PCs won 40.8 percent of the meager lot and 83 seats. The New Democrats and Liberals nearly tied in popular vote for second place at 23.7 percent and 23.8 percent respectively. With that, the New Democratic Party took 31 seats and the Liberals took 8 — a reminder of how fickle the province’s electoral system is. Both opposition leaders immediately resigned. If only they’d done so before the election started.

So what went wrong? It’s easier to ask what went right, because the answer is nothing, unless you’re Ford. In that case, the answer is two terrible opposition parties that spent the election fighting one another for second place; an antidemocratic and unconstitutional law passed by the premier to silence his critics by limiting third-party advertising and advocacy (and kept in place by a constitutional override); and a PC campaign that got away with shoving protesters and hiding from the public and media.

Ford met the material and class interests of many voters, with low taxes and an emphasis on small government and being “open for business.” For others, Ford satisfied their misguided symbolic and cultural needs. As Clifton van der Linden, assistant professor of political science at McMaster University and creator of the Vote Compass tool noted, Ford capitalized on opposing issues including statue removal, diversity and inclusion policies, anti-racism and colonialism education policy, medical treatment related to gender transition and supervised injection sites. The culture war in Ontario played a notable role in returning Ford, a fact that went unnoticed by many. In truth, this election was a battle over a dangerous and growing politics of race, class and gender grievance.

The polls barely moved throughout the campaign, save for a PC surge at the end and a Liberal dip. More than two years into the pandemic — with the country sliding deeper into an affordability crisis, weathering the increasingly heavy effects of climate change and witnessing an uncertain geopolitical realignment — people are scared, anxious and angry. The opposition parties failed to speak to and mobilize them — hence the low turnout that was central to the Ford win. The failure to capitalize on Ford’s missteps and get voters to the polls is especially damning for the NDP, who dropped 800,000 votes from its 2018 tally and lost 9 seats. The ostensible party of the workers didn’t show up for the class they’re meant to represent above all.

The electoral system in the province didn’t help matters. A majority of voters preferred a government not run by Ford. While the PCs won 40.8 percent of the popular vote, that was good enough for 83 of the legislature’s 124 seats — a rare second majority that was actually bigger than the first. The New Democrats and Liberals managed just 39 seats combined with their shared total of 47.5 percent of the votes. The PCs understood the assignment: to win more with less. Call it vote efficiency if you like. It’s cynical but, in a world where strategy and results trump what’s best for democracy, you get what you get.

Where does the opposition movement go from here? The future leaders of the NDP and Liberals should be furious. They ought to be angry about workers getting a raw deal, people not being able to afford to live, disabled folks living in legislated poverty. Angry about a crumbling health-care system. Angry about overstuffed schools. Angry about climate inaction. They must be capable of connecting with Ontarians and providing leadership that recognizes public suffering — and must commit to structural change.

The NDP in particular should be attentive to this anger and should make it their core mission to empower the party’s grass roots to build a pan-province movement of unabashedly leftist politics. They ought to move like lives depend upon it — because lives do depend upon it. There’s no time left for waiting.

This election must be a wake-up call for a complacent province and the uninspired opposition parties who have done nothing to break that complacency. The status quo cannot be allowed to hold. But that change is a way off, if it is to arrive at all.

For now, Ford and his government will have the run of the legislature with a huge majority and effectively no opposition to keep them in check. Maybe that will lead Ford toward defeating himself with hubris. But it’s best not to count on that. Instead, Ontarians should get organized, choose better leaders and commit to grass roots, barnstorming politics aimed at transforming the province. And that work must start today.