The self-immolation of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives might keep the Liberals in power after the June election, despite the deep unpopularity of Kathleen Wynne. But there is another possibility. Andrea Horwath could be the new Bob Rae.
Historical parallels are never exact, but, in this instance, there are enough similarities to make you wonder whether, just as in 1990, the incompetence and misfortune of the two mainstream political parties in Ontario could conspire to bring the NDP to power in a pox-on-both-your-houses election.
For those too young to remember, a brief history: In 1990, David Peterson's Liberal government had been in power for five years. The mood in the province, and in the country, was sour: Negotiations surrounding the Meech Lake Accord on constitutional reform had collapsed, separatism was on the upswing in Quebec and there were worrying signs of an oncoming recession.
Although he was only three years into his second mandate, Mr. Peterson decided to call a snap election before economic and political conditions got any worse. That turned out to be a terrible mistake. The public reacted angrily at the unnecessary election and people were generally unhappy with the state of the country's political leadership. Support for the Liberals began to erode.
The Conservatives should have benefited from that public anger. But the loss of power after the 1985 election had proved traumatic. The party was now in third place. Mike Harris, an upstart right-winger, had just won the leadership over the objections of the party establishment. He was little-known and less experienced. The Tories clearly were in no shape to govern. That just left Bob Rae.
Even back then, Mr. Rae was a veteran politician. As an NDP MP, he had helped orchestrate the defeat of Joe Clark's short-lived minority government in 1979. Three years later, Mr. Rae became leader of the Ontario NDP, and, in 1985, negotiated a two-year accord with the Liberals that allowed the two parties to end four decades of Conservative rule.
The NDP lost to the Liberals in the 1987 election and Mr. Rae assumed he would lose the 1990 election as well, after which he planned to retire from politics.
But with the Liberals and Conservatives both unpopular, attention began to shift in the final weeks of the campaign to the NDP. The New Democrats had no real platform, because they had never expected to win. But they had Mr. Rae. He ditched his tweedy rags in favour of dark suits and sober ties, offering himself to voters as an experienced, capable leader who could be trusted to run the store.
Mr. Rae likes to joke that when he learned on election night he would be premier, he demanded a recount. It was a narrow win – the Dippers only took 38 per cent of the vote, to the Grits' 32 per cent and the Tories' 24 per cent. But the vote splits handed the party a comfortable majority government.
That government ended in such disarray – going from first to third in the 1995 election that made Mike Harris premier – that the NDP hasn't been seriously in contention for power from that day to now.
Now, once again, the Ontario Liberals are deeply unpopular and the Conservatives are divided. Once again, the NDP might emerge as the last party standing.
Ms. Horwath has led the NDP since 2009, taking it to two third-place electoral defeats. Most people have no idea what's in the party's platform, but assume it's generally to the left of the Liberals.
On the other hand, Ms. Horwath routinely tops the polls as the most popular leader, just as Mr. Rae did back in the day. She can present herself to Ontario voters as an experienced, capable leader who could be trusted to run the store. If she can overcome voter nervousness over the party's tendency to drive taxes up and growth down, the NDP could emerge as an electable alternative.
Because right now, in Ontario, anything is possible. Even that.