Canadian politics have become much more exciting in the last few days. Just seven weeks after an election which saw Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party declare victory and form a minority government, a counter-coalition of opposition parties is threatening a confidence vote which could see the Conservative government fall. The counter-coalition is comprised of two, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, and is supported by a third, the Bloc Québécois.
In the last national election, held in early November, the Conservatives won 37.6% of the poplar vote, which translated into 143 seats (46% of the total seats) in Parliament. The Liberals won 26.2% of the vote (77 seats), the New Democratic Party won 18.2% of the vote (37 seats), and the Bloc Québécois 10% of the vote (49 seats). After the election results, Stephen Harper decided to try and rule through a minority government. His party’s attempt to force through fairly dramatic economic reforms provoked a sharp response from the opposition, leading to the current standoff.
Michaëlle Jean, the Canadian Governor General, who acts as head of state, is returning from a conference in Europe to consider ways out of the current crisis. Three options appear to be on the table. First, she may permit new elections to be scheduled, though it is unclear that new elections would resolve the crisis. Second, she may approve the new coalition and allow it to form a new government. Or third, she may permit Harper to suspend parliament without calling for new elections.
Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, the crisis illustrates the challenges of parliamentary governance. Parliamentary systems are often criticized for being less stable than presidential systems. This is certainly illustrated by the contemporary crisis in Canada. But on the up side, they can also force greater compromise and are often more inclusive of a greater variety of opinions. The current crisis in Canada is, in part, a function of the larger number of political parties represented in the national legislature. The four major parties in the Canadian Parliament each represent a specific ideological or political constituency, and it appears unlikely that either the major parties or their constituencies are going to disappear to make governance easier.
The crisis also raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy. In the context of the crisis, the Conservatives have accused the Liberals of being undemocratic in their attempt to circumvent the popular expression of the people in the last national election. By tradition, the party that wins a plurality of the seats in parliament gets the right to form the new government. But the Liberals counter that the current government is not representative of the interests of the Canadian electorate, the majority of which voted for parties other than the Conservatives. Both positions have an element of truth. Ultimately, however, the debate over the future of the Canadian Parliament will likely be resolved through power sharing deals negotiated in the back halls of Parliament rather than another national election.