What did the last five years, capped by Monday night's election results, teach us and the political parties?
For starters, negative television attack ads work. They will now become a fixture, if they are not already, of Conservative Party politics. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, other parties might follow along.
The intimidating attack ads directed by the Conservatives against Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff framed them for Canadians before they could frame themselves. The ads worked, in other words, and they will be used again. Their use, in turn, showed the importance of fundraising, which means mobilizing the party's base to give money all the time. Fundraising means playing on fear of the other party.
Second, a Conservative government under Stephen Harper that was in some respects more right-wing than any previous conservative government ultimately produced a more polarized electorate. To oppose the Harper government, non-Conservatives swung not to the traditionally more moderate Liberals, but to the untested and more left-wing New Democrats. Opposites do not attract, they repel, which explains in part the determination of those who did not like the Harper government to opt for the party least like the Conservatives.
Third, Mr. Harper got what he wanted almost as much as an overwhelming victory: an overwhelming Liberal defeat. Not just the defeat but the destruction of the Liberal Party was Mr. Harper's political objective, because he believed the Liberals' disappearance would pave the way to a long period of Conservative dominance.
Mr. Harper believes that Canada is fundamentally not a social democratic country but a conservative one. To put matters another way, in a straight-up fight between conservative and left-wing forces, conservatives will win most of the time. The big, sprawling Liberal Party got in the way of this right-left showdown (and a left-wing surge, until this campaign). The Liberals' demise spells long-term good news for the Conservatives.
Fourth, Quebec political nationalism remains consequential for Canadian federal politics. In the post-Trudeau era, the party that appeals most directly to Quebec nationalism has the best chance of winning in the province, as Brian Mulroney did in 1984 and 1988, the Bloc Québécois thereafter, and now the NDP, with its promise to reopen the Constitution, give more power to Quebec, and to allow Quebec's language law to trump the Official Languages Act.
That the NDP was not the Harper Conservatives, centralist Liberals or has-been Bloc Québécois was a key factor in the party's success in Quebec, as were its promises to spend more on social programs and do more for the environment. But the NDP's blatant nationalist appeal was the key difference between this election for the NDP and the previous ones.
Fifth, ordinary people seldom dislike parties and leaders as much as their political opponents do. The Liberals thought Canadians in the majority really disliked the Prime Minister. They therefore directed heavy fire against his controlling style: prorogation, contempt of Parliament, media control, lack of access, generalized sourness. These attacks counted for the core Harper-haters, but did little for Canadians who do not follow politics closely, or care much about government. Lessons: Canadians are so cynical about politics that many of them just expect that this is the way democracy works.
Sixth, sunny ways are usually more appealing that dark ones. In a contest between a dour Prime Minister and an academic Leader of the Opposition, Jack Layton seemed like the guy people could relate to. He rose during the campaign in popular appeal, whereas Mr. Harper stalled and Mr. Ignatieff declined. Mind you, Mr. Layton presented himself in the same way against Mr. Harper and Stéphane Dion in 2008 and didn't go very far. Lesson: Timing and circumstance are hugely important.
Seventh, the huge advantages of being in power for five years - massive spending on programs and advertising, almost complete policy freedom, manic message control, a sometimes weak opposition, vastly better fundraising, policies directed blatantly at narrow swaths of voters - did slightly increase the Conservatives' share of the popular vote. They won many seats because the NDP took votes from the Liberals, thereby allowing the Conservatives to win three-way races.
That the Conservatives, despite these advantages, have not become a more dominant party, means Mr. Harper, with his style and tactics, turns off more Canadians than he attracts. But the collapse of the Liberals allowed his Conservatives to win their coveted majority.
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