Perusing the Toronto Star Wednesday, I noted that Chantal Hébert was again touting the advantages of a Liberal-NDP " non-aggression" pact for the next election. On Saturday in La Presse, on the other hand, we learned that " Jean Chrétien believes it's in the interest of the Liberal Party to merge with the NDP and build a party that can defeat the Conservatives in the next election"- and that "merger is the only option" if the two parties decide to cooperate. An idea that Jeffrey Simpson dismissed in Wednesday's Globe as " crazy to contemplate."
Personally, I'm with Mr. Chrétien on this one. Who better than he-having run successfully three times against a divided right-to understand that the division of the opposition vote, if it continues, will likely mean the election of a third consecutive Conservative government?
Indeed, in the past few weeks, Michael Ignatieff has put the Liberal Party in an almost untenable position. By stating that coalitions are "perfectly legitimate" and that he'd be prepared to form a government with the NDP - while foreclosing the merger option--the Liberal leader has in effect done Stephen Harper's job for him.
For some time it's been clear that Mr. Harper has been eager to run his next election campaign against the prospect of the Liberals and NDP getting together again with the support of the Bloc Québécois. Conservative support in the polls has never been higher than it was during the coalition near-crisis of 2008. Yet, every time since then that the Prime Minister raised this spectre, he was accused by many in the media of "fear-mongering"-an accusation that he will no longer have to confront.
Having lived the same experience in the 1990's as Mr. Chrétien but from the losing side - Mr. Harper knows exactly how to campaign against a divided opposition by playing off one party's program policies against the other(s).
He understands that his Conservative Party is the second choice of nearly one in five Liberal voters, and that the prospect of a coalition with "socialists" will frighten many of them - particularly in Ontario, where memories of the Liberal-NDP accord, and the subsequent Rae government, have not altogether faded.
In British Columbia, Mr. Harper knows that about one in five NDP voters is protesting against "the system," and that these voters move easily back and forth between parties of the left and the right. Many of these voters will not be thrilled with the prospect of a Liberal government-seen as the party of the establishment--and they will have the option of casting their ballot for the Green Party to register a protest vote, or not voting at all.
Some people will argue that there is not enough time between now and the next election to effect a merger of the Liberal Party and the NDP. Perhaps. But the prospect of a hanging in the morning should concentrate their minds wonderfully. Others will question the analogy with the formation of Stephen Harper's new Conservative Party.
It's true that the Liberals and NDP have always been separate parties, whereas Stephen Harper's challenge was to re-unify two parties that recently had been one. But this does not change the electoral dynamics of vote splitting; it only means that the challenge on the left is more daunting. And while these dynamics would also apply if the Liberals and New Democrats were to merge, in that case there would at least be one party in a position to coalesce the anti-Harper vote on the basis of a common, moderate platform-if not in this election then in the next.
According to the La Presse report, Mr. Chrétien held informal merger discussions with Ed Broadbent "a few months ago," but these discussions "led nowhere" and have been terminated. Having no mandate from Mr. Ignatieff, the former prime minister, we're told, has decided not to "stir things up any more so as not to harm Liberal chances in the next election." Unless someone else picks up the ball and runs with it, however, the prospect of a majority Conservative government after the next election should not be excluded.