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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen celebrate his majority election victory in Calgary on May 2, 2011.


Jack Layton's New Democrats have long dreamt of the day they would supplant the Liberals as the party of the centre-left. And Stephen Harper has shared that dream, believing it would allow his Conservatives to become the country's natural governing party.

In this spring's federal campaign, what once seemed quixotic came to pass faster than either Mr. Harper or Mr. Layton could have imagined. After Monday's election, Canada has something approaching a two-party system. Now we'll all take a deep breath and see if the new reality can survive a four-year break from elections.

Certainly, it doesn't appear we'll be headed back to a four-party system anytime soon. The Bloc Québécois has been virtually wiped off the map, and getting back onto it is going to be very difficult. As the Official Opposition to a majority government, the NDP will be able to maintain with little consequence the soft nationalist positions that have helped it become Quebec's dominant party, leaving the Bloc very little room to work with.

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But whether we've seen a permanent realignment in the rest of the country is a different matter. And for the Liberals, there's perhaps a small silver lining for them in Monday's result.

The Liberals came into this campaign determined to hold Mr. Harper to another minority. On election night, his majority was the closest they came to good news - because it gives them at least a faint hope of reversing their death spiral.

Theirs is a party that clearly needs a long break from voters. Its brand, indeed its very existence, revolves around a sort of nostalgia that most voters evidently don't share. And since they lost power more than five years ago, the Liberals have flailed desperately in the false belief that they're just one new leader or one new policy or one new catch-phrase away from being embraced by Canadians once more.

Freed from perpetual election speculation, not to mention the question of whether they're compelled to help bring down Mr. Harper, the Liberals have one last opportunity to make themselves relevant.

If they're willing and able to start almost from scratch, they might yet find that there's still centrist space available to them between the New Democrats and the Conservatives. And if the NDP's surge is largely about Mr. Layton's personal popularity, the Liberals may eventually re-emerge as the Conservatives' main opponents.

But their opponents will not make it easy for them. For the foreseeable future, Mr. Layton will make an excellent OppositionLleader; those who voted for him probably won't be disappointed. And Mr. Harper, who has been able even with a minority government to drive the Liberals to the ground, will do everything he can to keep them there - starting with phasing out per-vote subsidies, which could push them toward bankruptcy.

Already there are prominent Liberals speculating about merging with the NDP. More accurately they might be talking about folding into it, with more right-leaning members of their party migrating to the Conservatives.

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That the Liberals will embrace the new reality, rather than fight it, might be too much even for Mr. Layton or Mr. Harper to hope for. But the two leaders of our two competitive parties must have slept well on election night, knowing that dreams really can come true.

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