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The Greens and other little parties that could

The biggest Canadian political surprise of 2012 came in by-elections in Victoria and Calgary, where Green Party candidates scored astonishingly well.

Yes, by-elections will be by-elections, with their occasional idiosyncrasies and invitation to voters to blow off steam, knowing the outcome won't change the government. Nonetheless, the strong Green showing reflects a pattern found in many Western democracies (the U.S. excepted). Many democracies confront the fracturing of political consensus and the creation of new populist or single-issue parties.

In Canada, the long duopoly of Conservative and Liberal parties has been over for some time. We had the Bloc Québécois as the official opposition, then the Reform Party, and now the NDP. And we have the appearance of the Greens as serious competitors in selected ridings.

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Majority governments exist in Canada only because of the "first past the post" electoral system that allows a government to form a parliamentary majority with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. The system enabled Jean Chrétien to win three majorities, and Stephen Harper to win his in 2011.

The fracturing of consensus makes it easier for one party to capture a majority with such a small share of the popular vote. As long as three or four parties vie for the non-Conservative vote, Mr. Harper will be sitting pretty.

Look around the Western world. New parties have grabbed more votes appealing to specific grievances, ethnic groups, ideological nostrums, single issues or resentment over the loss of local autonomy. They feed, too, on the economic dislocations intensified by the fallout from the 2008 recession.

It might be argued that, in some cases, the more tightly linked countries become, yielding up their sovereignty to institutions larger than themselves, the more internally fractured their politics become.

In Britain, the largely unheralded (at least in North America) political story of 2012 has been the rise of the UK Independence Party, which has been scoring between 7 per cent and 11 per cent in public opinion polls. The party wants Britain out of the European Union.

As the British deepen their ingrained Euroskepticism, a party that says "Let's get out" is finding more people willing to listen. Peering across the Channel at the EU's problems makes more Britons doubt the utility of integration, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer just told Britons to expect "austerity" until 2018. (Welcome to Britain, Mark Carney.)

At the same time, the Scottish National Party, in power in Edinburgh, has signed an agreement with Westminster to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The SNP obviously bends every effort to persuade Scots to break up the United Kingdom.

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Spain, too, faces the possibility of dismemberment, because pro-independence parties just won a majority in Catalonia. Whether the Catalans make a clear break or settle for securing more powers for their regional government, the Spanish status quo will change.

In Germany, a country that had four enduring parties decades ago, there are now six parties, with the Greens and the hard-left Die Linke having become fixtures. In France, the far-right and anti-Europe National Front has gained strength. Across Scandinavia and Finland, parties hostile to immigration and Europe now have parliamentary seats. The established parties ostracize them, but these new parties reflect uneasiness about what has happened demographically in these countries.

In Australia and New Zealand, the Greens have been the fastest-growing parties. The Greens keep Labour in power in Canberra; in New Zealand, the Greens are the third-largest party in Parliament.

Even in staid Japan, where the old Liberal Democrats are heading back into office, an upsurge of loud right-wing nationalist parties is shaking up the culture.

In one sense, Canada has experienced considerable political stability. The Harper Conservatives never fall below 31 per cent in the polls, and they can't get above 39 per cent. They have an unshakable core vote of 33 per cent to 35 per cent. All the ferment lies in and among the other parties, not one of which is strong enough to win but not one of which wants to yield up the dream of succeeding.

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