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opinion

Nelson Wiseman is a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

The race to lead the Conservative Party is competitive and the field is deep with candidates. In contrast, it seems few are interested in contesting the leadership of the NDP.

The difference is the stakes: The Conservative hopefuls see themselves contesting the prime ministership in 2019; whoever decides to run for the NDP must be realistic, aware that he or she is running to lead a perpetual third-place party.

The second-place performance of the NDP in the 2011 election was a fluke; it had never happened before and is unlikely to happen again in the foreseeable future. In contrast, the Conservatives performed true to form in the 2015 election: they stumbled after governing for the better part of a decade, as they had under John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, and were defeated by the Liberals. If the Liberals are Canada's natural governing party, the Conservatives are the country's natural opposition party. The NDP is the long-suffering natural third party, resigned to that fate no matter how much their leader might protest.

The NDP has won provincial elections but it has little hope of prevailing federally. In contrast, the Conservatives have demonstrated that they can win federally without holding power in many provincial capitals. One word sums up the reason for the NDP's fairly consistent lacklustre federal performance and the Conservatives' better chance of winning federal power: Quebec.

As Canada's most fickle voters, Quebeckers more often than not determine which party will win federal power and whether that party will command a parliamentary majority or minority. With 23 per cent of Canada's constituencies, Quebec will also be crucial in deciding who is competitive and who is not in the Conservative and NDP leadership races.

Institutional rules and partisan cultures are the keys to handicapping the Conservative and NDP leadership races. Quebec Conservative Maxime Bernier must be considered the favourite to win his party's leadership because of his party's leadership selection provisions; it requires constituency equality, not member equality. Party members in Quebec's 78 constituencies, no matter how few in each constituency, will opt overwhelmingly for Mr. Bernier who has been campaigning for the job since he entered Parliament a decade ago.

Most of the dozen or so other Conservative candidates, lacking support or funds (like Tony Clement), will drop out of the race or become marginal players before the May vote. Left standing will probably be Lisa Raitt, the establishment candidate; Kellie Leitch, who appeals to the party's anti-immigrant wing; Erin O'Toole, who has substantial caucus support; and possibly Michael Chong, a Red Tory, that dying breed.

Party members will count much more than their constituencies in the coming NDP convention. The convention will reveal how weak the party is in Quebec, a weakness that was on full display at the party's last convention which deposed Tom Mulcair. Although the NDP held a majority of Quebec's seats after the 2011 election and Quebeckers made up well more than half the party's caucus, likely fewer than 10 per cent of the convention delegates were from the province.

At next October's convention, the number of Quebeckers will be fewer still. Even if Quebec MP Guy Caron decides to run, the party's English-Canadian culture dooms his prospects. Northerner Charlie Angus, British Columbian Peter Julian, and Ontario NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh will attract elements in that culture, but they will be hard-pressed to hold onto any of the party's 16 seats in Quebec. If Niki Ashton, who campaigned for Bernie Sanders, is selected (an improbable but possible outcome), the party is unlikely to win the dozen seats nationally needed to retain its status as a recognized party in Parliament.

Although its population continues to shrink as a percentage of Canada's population, Quebec continues to play an outsized role in national politics.

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