Trudeau gambled — but didn’t get what he wanted
Trudeau, the incumbent prime minister, was riding high in the polls after spending billions of dollars on aid to help Canadians who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. Last month, he tried to capitalize on this by asking the governor-general to dissolve parliament and call an election. His Liberal Party had had a plurality — but not a majority — of the seats in the House of Commons, requiring him to negotiate support for his agenda from the opposition parties.
While he was able to get at least one of the three main opposition parties — the Conservatives, the socialist New Democrats, and the Quebec separatists of the Bloc Quebecois — to support each piece of legislation, Trudeau hoped to gain a majority and rule unopposed for four years. Seat projections at the beginning of the election looked good. When he first called the election, Canadian elections observer Eric Grenier gave him a 94 percent chance of winning the most seats and a 51 percent chance of winning the election. Then Erin O’Toole showed up.
Support for the Conservatives surged — and then fell off
After the Conservatives lost the 2019 election to Trudeau, they held a leadership contest. O’Toole ran on the party’s right flank. He told social conservatives that they had a place in the party and promised to defund the English-language service of Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which many Tories viewed as too left wing.
When he won, he quickly pivoted away from these positions to try to attract suburban voters around Toronto and elsewhere; their support was critical to the Liberals’ 2019 victory, because of the Conservative Party’s social conservatism. O’Toole was determined not to let this happen again. He publicly declared himself a supporter of abortion rights and in favor of LGBTQ rights, and tried to move away from cutting off the CBC. For the first three weeks of the campaign, this appeared to work. Support for the Conservatives increased from 29 to 34 percent by early September, and analysts suggested they might even win.
Then Bernier showed up
The Conservative move toward the center created open space to the right — which was quickly filled by the People’s Party. In 2017, Bernier ran for the Conservative leadership on a libertarian platform, dubbing himself Mad Max for his opposition to corporate welfare and agricultural quotas. He lost narrowly after dairy farmers mobilized against him, and quit the Conservatives to form the populist/alt-right People’s Party. Bernier dropped his libertarianism in favor of limits on immigration and opposition to those known as globalists.
The party did badly in 2019, attracting less than 2 percent of the vote. However, this time around, Bernier — who was arrested earlier in the year for violating public health orders — was able to tap into the rage of those opposed to vaccines and lockdowns or who believe the coronavirus is simply a giant myth. Combined with support from conservatives alienated by O’Toole’s flip-flops, Bernier peeled away votes from the Tories. Over the course of the campaign, support for the People’s Party more than doubled, eviscerating O’Toole’s lead.
This handed victory to Trudeau
The People’s Party split the right wing vote, making it harder for Conservatives to win individual parliamentary constituencies (or “ridings”) and achieve the parliamentary plurality they needed to unseat Trudeau. Because Canada does not have proportional representation, votes for small parties that have no real chance of winning are wasted votes for the right. The result, as the Toronto Sun newspaper put it, was “Vote Bernier, Get Trudeau.”
While we will have to wait for final tallies to calculate exactly how many seats this vote splitting cost the Conservatives, initial results suggest that if every People’s Party voter had cast a ballot for the Conservative Party instead, the Conservatives would have won 145 seats to the Liberals 141 (calculated using preliminary vote totals as of 4 a.m. Eastern time). Meanwhile, because not a single People’s Party candidate won a plurality of votes, the party does not have a single seat in the House. Bernier knew that the odds of electing even a single People’s Party candidate were slim, but he may not have cared so long as he prevented the Conservatives from forming a government.
Canadians have been here before. In the 1990s, disgruntled members quit the Conservatives and launched the Reform Party, after Conservatives proposed amending the constitution to give the Quebec government special powers. Vote splitting between the Conservatives and Reformers propelled the Liberal Party to three straight majority victories in 1993, 1997 and 2000. It was only after the two factions were able to merge into a single party in 2003 that they became competitive again.
That was a split over policy. Bernier’s split was personal. The election has given him a base to build on. Canada has been much less susceptible to populism than the United States or Europe because of its focus on integrating new immigrants. Thanks to the coronavirus, Bernier may be able to change that.