The Global Importance of the Canadian Election Results

To almost everyone’s surprise, Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, won the Canadian elections with a stunning absolute majority of seats in the federal parliament. The surprise was both the winner and his margin. As late as several weeks before the election on October 19, polls showed a three-way virtual tie between the three main candidates: Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the rightwing Conservative Party, Thomas Mulcair of the leftwing New Democratic Party (NDP), and Trudeau whose party was considered centrist. In the predicted votes, Mulcair was leading narrowly and Trudeau was said to be in third place.

Then in the month or so before the elections, suddenly Trudeau’s figures rose, and Mulcair’s figures plunged, ending with the following division of seats: 184 for the Liberals, 99 for the Conservatives, 44 for the NDP, 10 for the Bloc Québécois, and 1 for the Greens. To understand the significance of these results, one must first understand the relatively unusual voting system in Canada. The federal parliament is divided into 338 so-called ridings, each of which sends one person to parliament. In each riding the winner is the one “first past the post.” This means that all a party needs is a simple plurality of votes in the riding to win the seat. As a result, it is extremely rare for one party to win an absolute majority of seats nationally, which is what happened this time.

The question is why the Liberals had such an upsurge in the last minute, essentially upending the NDP. After all, the NDP had previously surprised everyone in the provincial elections in ultra-conservative Alberta on May 6 by doing well across the board and becoming, seemingly, a major national party. No one can be sure, but most analysts think the upsurge came from a sentiment by voters of “anyone but Harper.” Apparently, the voters thought that the Liberals were more likely to achieve this end than the NDP at the level of the individual ridings. Whatever the explanation, Canada now has a stable government for the next five years. We therefore have to assess how Trudeau is going to use his absolute majority.

Trudeau has made some clear promises. He says he is going to support deficit spending for at least three years, increase taxation on the wealthy, and maintain and expand welfare state provisions. In short, he promises an anti-austerity program of a Keynesian variety. This promise placed the Liberals to the left of the NDP, which had moved to the center in order to attract Liberal and independent voters. In addition, he has promised increased activity in combating climate change, something that the Harper government had strongly opposed. And, on social issues, he would move further by legalizing marijuana.

On domestic issues, the centrist Trudeau has thus promised to act as a classical social-democrat of the kind now gone out of fashion among most social-democratic parties. Does he mean it? That depends on whether Canada will weather the worldwide economic storm relatively well in the next year or two. If not, Trudeau may well swing back to a somewhat more “austere” program.

The real difference will be in the geopolitical arena. Harper’s views were very similar to those of the Tea Party in the United States. He did not believe in the reality of climate change. He was against the Iran nuclear deal. He was against immigration of Syrian refugees and anything else that might make Canada more “multicultural.” He strongly favored building the Keystone pipeline of oil and gas from Canada to the United States. He was a war hawk and therefore had agreed to send Canadian jets to join the U.S.-led “coalition” in Syria, but wished to make the ouster of Bashar al-Assad a priority.

Trudeau’s program was virtually the opposite on every question. This aligned his position with that of President Obama on most questions, with one major exception. Trudeau was against further involvement in the civil wars in the Middle East. In particular, he promised to withdraw all Canadian airplanes from the coalition. True to his word, right after the election results were in, Trudeau telephoned Obama to inform him that the Canadian planes were withdrawn. It was only a matter of six planes, but the symbolism was important. Canada was not going to follow the U.S. lead in the global arena.

By voting Harper out of office, Canada was rejecting the entire conservative movement in the United States. This is why they voted for “anyone but Harper.” And the post-Obama president of the United States will have to live with that. Another locus of change will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). Harper lost votes because, in the end, he signed it. There is now going to be considerable resistance in Canada, as well as in the United States, to ratifying the treaty, whose prospects are growing dimmer all the time.

Analysts have noted the stylistic similarities of Obama and Trudeau. Both are essentially centrists – both intellectually and emotionally. Both believe in discussion with opponents to arrive at some sort of consensus. Both invest time and energy in talking with opponents rather than enacting legislation. Obama has paid a high price politically for the consequent delays. And Trudeau is likely to suffer the same setbacks, unless he learns from Obama’s errors, which for the moment he doesn’t seem to be doing.

The bottom line is a reasonably meaningful geopolitical disjunction of Canada from the United States. It is a further blow to the declining ability of the United States to impose its views on the global situation.