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The Globe and Mail

Prime ministers may not know when their time is up, but voters do

Let's take a brief stroll through Canadian political history, because the steps help to underscore Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's challenge in seeking re-election.

History never repeats itself. But history offers patterns and insights that are worth remembering. So let's stroll.

The stroll starts in the post-Second World War era with the election of Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent who won a majority in 1949. Eight years later, he and the Liberals were defeated by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

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The Chief lasted from 1957 to 1963, about six years. He was beaten by Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who governed with minorities until 1968, when Liberal Pierre Trudeau took over.

Mr. Trudeau called an election that his party won in 1968. He remained prime minister for 11 years. But, for those who remember those years, his government was politically finished by 1977. It limped along as long as the law allowed, five years, and then lost in 1979. Although Mr. Trudeau was in office for 11 years, the public had turned against him and the Liberals after nine years.

Enter Joe Clark. Nine months followed by the unexpected return of Mr. Trudeau in 1980 for four years.

Enter thereafter Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who defeated Mr. Trudeau's successor, John Turner, and stayed in office from 1984-93, nine years.

Enter Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, 1993 to December, 2003, when he was essentially forced out by Paul Martin's supporters in the Liberal Party. Mr. Martin served for only two years, and gave way to Mr. Harper, who has occupied 24 Sussex Drive for nine years and seven months.

What does the historical stroll reveal? That Canadians do not have formal term limits for the leaders, as do Americans, Mexicans and the French for their presidents, but somewhere in the eighth or ninth year of a prime minister's tenure, the public says "time's up." Call it, for lack of a more precise phrase, the "democratic instinct."

It doesn't much matter which party is in power. The state of the economy is not of cardinal importance. How much money a party throws around before and during a campaign doesn't count for much. None of these, and other factors, seem as critical as the democratic instinct that it's "time for a change."

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Mr. Mulroney sensed he could not win a third time and wisely departed. Mr. Chrétien managed a third win, but his party would not allow him to try again. Only Mr. Trudeau passed the 10-year mark (1968-79) and, as noted, the public had turned against him by 1977, the nine-year mark.

When Mr. Harper therefore decided to seek another mandate, rather than leaving after nine years or so in office, he was spitting into the winds of Canadian postwar political history.

If he wins this election with another majority, he would remain in office for more consecutive years than any postwar prime minister. Even if Mr. Harper managed for a couple of years with a minority, he would still win the longevity award. Alas, for him, the electorate is not going to give him a majority. It increasingly looks like even a Conservative minority is doubtful.

Opinion polls can, and will, change. Take them for what they are worth; snapshots of a point in time. Today, the serious ones all point in the same direction: The Conservatives are at or below 30 per cent.

Let's say Mr. Harper's fortunes improve a bit. A finish in the low 30-per-cent range would still be the worst result for Canada's conservative forces since the elections of 1963, 1965 and 1968 and 1980.

It would be a far cry from the Progressive Conservatives under Mr. Mulroney, who won 50 per cent of the vote in 1984 and 43 per cent in 1988.

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Even after the Reform Party split the conservative world, the two conservative parties – Reform and the PCs – got 34 per cent to 37 per cent of the vote. And in Mr. Harper's first three elections, his party won 36.3 per cent, 37.7 per cent and 39.6 per cent of the popular vote.

Unless things dramatically improve, Mr. Harper, spitting into both the winds of history and the democratic instinct for change, seems to be leading conservative forces toward their worst defeat in a generation.

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