With his impressive election triumph Monday, Stephen Harper has completed a remarkable reconstruction of a Canadian political landscape that endured for more than a century. The realignment sees both old parties of the moderate middle, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, either eliminated or marginalized.
In their place are the widely separated NDP on the left and Harper Conservatives on the right. It was Mr. Harper who led the Canadian Alliance's merger/takeover of the old PCs almost eight years ago. It was Mr. Harper who worked to destroy the Liberal Party and who saw much of that happen in Monday's election.
The new dynamic leaves the centre, the area of the spectrum where the bulk of the population resides, formally unrepresented. Although the Conservatives and the New Democrats will tailor policy appeals to the middle, their ideological convictions increase the potential for polarization.
Not long in power, the forging of the new dynamic sees this Prime Minister already meriting a special place in the pantheon of Canadian leaders. Such a place is owed to him for another reason as well. No other federal leader has started from so far back and from so far outside the middle of the spectrum and emerged such a winner. A decade ago, Stephen Harper was heading up a small right-wing group called the National Citizens Coalition. He took over a Canadian Alliance shoehorned in the West and nowhere in the polls and in competition with the old Tories. He led the unification drive and won the leadership of the new Conservatives. He built a superior organization, won two minorities and a now a majority, crushing the Grits in the process.
The extraordinary strength of the party Mr. Harper has built was demonstrated in this campaign. It was, most everyone agreed, a fault-ridden campaign. It began with a contempt of Parliament ruling. It featured monotonous performances by the leader and little that was eye-catching in the platform. The bubble campaign faced one controversy over abuse of power after another. Mr. Harper's personal ratings declined during it. And yet the Conservatives were still strong enough to roll to a majority government.
The Harper machine is so powerful, woe to anyone who tries to take it on. Michael Ignatieff spoke yesterday of how the relentless onslaught of attack ads defined him. He said when people actually met him they found out he wasn't that bad. In fact, he wasn't. He was maturing as a leader and becoming an effective communicator. He had gained a feel for the country. But by the time the campaign began, the Harper team had him so shot full of holes he couldn't recover. That he didn't win his own seat Monday and cannot remain in Parliament is a loss for the party and the country.
Mr. Harper has often been described as favouring a divide-and-conquer political strategy. The strategy appears to have worked and he could well interpret the election result as a vindication of that kind of politics. But as he showed in his well-crafted victory acceptance speech and at a press conference Tuesday, he might begin to relax. Now that he has a majority government, there is less need for iron-fisted control. Now that he has pushed the Liberal Party to the side, he has another reason to be less Nixonian. The Bloc, too, will not be there in large numbers to pester him.
His only major opponent are the lefties of the NDP with their new and perhaps tenuous base in Quebec. That province is no longer crucial to the Prime Minister. Conservative leaders always thought a coalition between the West and Quebec nationalists was necessary to win a majority. In this election, Mr. Harper proved no such coalition is necessary. He proved that the West and Ontario can suffice.
In many ways, the new political dynamic he has brought to Canada is a right fit for him. It is a Canada he may well be able dominate for a decade or more to come.