On a bright sunny day in early June, 2010, Stephen Harper was in the back garden of 10 Downing St., answering questions at a press conference with newly-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron, when he was asked about coalition governments.
"Losers don't get to form coalitions," the Prime Minister said without hesitation. "Winners are the ones who form governments."
Back then the issue was top of mind as Mr. Cameron was the leader of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats after his Conservatives won the most seats in the general election the month before, but fell 20 short of a majority.
And there was also the Canadian connection – in late 2008, just after the federal election in Canada that returned another Conservative minority government, the opposition parties had threatened to defeat Mr. Harper and his governing Conservatives. He fended it off at the last minute by convincing then Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to allow him to prorogue the House.
Five years later, the issue is top of mind again as Canadians cast their ballots. While it's not clear what the election outcome will be, many pundits believe that on Tuesday the country will wake up to a minority government of some stripe.
What is crystal clear, however, is that Mr. Harper's view has not changed.
"We ask people to make a choice of a government," he said, in an interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge last month. "And so I think that the party that wins the most seats should form the government."
Not everyone agrees. "He is both right and wrong," says constitutional law expert Errol Mendes.
The University of Ottawa professor says Mr. Harper, as the incumbent Prime Minister, has the "right to try to see" if he can form the government. But that means he has to earn the confidence of the House of Commons, which could be a problem, given that both NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have said they would not support a Conservative minority.
Behind the scenes, Liberal and NDP strategists and candidates have been privately mulling over the different outcomes – and how they would react on election night.
The scenarios are endless – here are some of them:
A Conservative minority
A party needs 170 seats for a majority, and how the opposition parties react depends on the size of the Conservative majority. If the Tories win just fewer than 170 seats, it's not clear what the opposition move would be. Who knows – Conservative Leader Harper could see some floor-crossers to bolster his numbers. It's happened before, most famously in 2006 when former Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson suddenly appeared at Rideau Hall to be sworn into the Harper cabinet as his minister of international trade.
However, a minority – one NDP insider said fewer than 165 seats for the Conservatives – could trigger negotiations between the Liberals and NDP over how they could go to the Governor-General and form government.
The idea of a coalition government has pretty much been ruled out, according to the NDP insider. The more likely scenario would be a negotiated accord between the two parties, ensuring stable government for a defined period of time. If the Liberals won the most seats, for example, it could form the government with the support of the NDP, perhaps, exacting certain provisions for its support.
On paper this looks straightforward, but constitutional considerations are not black and white. For example, Mr. Mendes says he fears that if Mr. Harper wins a minority, he could "try to rag the puck," meaning he could put off calling back the House of Commons for weeks, hoping to "see if he could divide and conquer."
Mr. Harper's strategy, says Mr. Mendes, could be to delay the return of Parliament – and facing a confidence motion – to see if there could also be a falling out between the two opposition parties or one of the two might come around to support the Conservatives.
The NDP insider says the worry is, too, that Mr. Harper might try to stay on for a series of international meetings before calling back the House of Commons, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meetings in Manila in November and later in the month the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.
A Liberal minority
This scenario would be easier to manage as it is most likely that the NDP's Mr. Mulcair would support Mr. Trudeau. It is not clear, however, what that support would look like – and again, it would depend on the size of the Liberal minority.
The NDP and Liberals might negotiate a formal accord – or Mr. Trudeau and his team could decide to try to govern on an issue-by-issue basis, picking up support from one or another of the federalist parties.
The role of the Governor-General
Governor-General David Johnston could become the key player in this election outcome. Mr. Mendes says it's the Governor-General's job to step in and advise a Prime Minister that what he is doing may not be in the best interests of the country.
Mr. Mendes, who has known Mr. Johnston for more than 20 years through the world of academia, says he is "not the puppet of the Prime Minister."
There was a view during the 2008 coalition controversy that then Governor General Michaëlle Jean had acquiesced to the Prime Minister by allowing him to prorogue Parliament and avoid a vote of non-confidence that would have defeated his government.
"He is a very thoughtful person," Mr. Mendes says. "He is certainly not going to be pushed around."