Canadian Elections: Behind Talk of the 'Historic Election,' the Image of the State Remains Fragile

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On May 2nd, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won its first ever majority government, upping its margin in the House of Commons from 143 seats to 166. As a result of the election, the Liberal Party’s tally of seats (34) has been reduced to an historic low, while the Bloc Québécois (BQ) has been virtually wiped out as player in federal politics, holding on to only 4 seats. However, for the bourgeois media the real story of this “historic election” was the rise of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), which took the most seats in its history (103) and now forms the official opposition in Ottawa for the first time ever.

As a result of the election, the Conservatives now have the power to enact whatever legislation they want—no longer threatened by possible opposition non-confidence votes. However, although they now control a majority of seats in the House of Commons, only 37 percent of voters actually voted for a Conservative MP. In large measure, the Conservative majority was built by “splits on the left,” as an insurgent NDP competed strongly with Liberals in a number of key ridings, throwing the race to the Conservatives. The Canadian bourgeoisie is now stuck with a scandal ridden Conservative government for the next four years boasting a ruling team that has shown bold contempt for the “democratic process” in the past, even though it only formed a minority government. The fear of what the Harper Conservatives will do in a majority government to further damage the democratic illusion must be a real concern for the Canadian bourgeoisie at the present time. So far, the Conservatives would appear to be taking pains not to rock the boat too far, too fast having waged a campaign around “stability.”

Clearly, this was not the optimal election result for revitalizing democratic and electoral illusions among a populace that has grown increasingly cynical and disengaged from its state over the last decade and half. Nevertheless, given the structure of the Canadian state, it became evident fairly early on in the campaign that another Conservative government would be the outcome of the election. Therefore, in order to attempt to salvage the situation—the Canadian bourgeoisie—after a period of hesitancy at the beginning of the campaign — moved to build up the candidacy of NDP leader Jack Layton, legitimating his party as a viable option to the Liberals. (See “The Canadian Bourgeois Attempts to Revive its Democratic Illusion Once Again” in Internationalism #158). Playing on the historic volatility of the electorate in Quebec, the NDP shot past the Liberals and the BQ there, winning seat after seat in a province where it had previously been virtually absent. Whether or not the Conservatives would have formed a majority government without a strong showing by the NDP is a matter of some debate, but a Conservative government was inevitable given the near total ineptitude of the Liberal campaign.

As the result of the election, the Canadian state is now characterized by a sharp polarization between a right-wing party in power and a social democratic left in opposition. Although the continued presence of the Harper Conservatives in power is not the optimal situation for the Canadian bourgeoisie; this is assuaged to some degree by the revitalization of a left opposition in the NDP. With the historic defeat of the Liberal Party and the near total destruction of the BQ, the Canadian state is moving—for the moment at least—towards a more stable two party opposition in the political system. This will allow the Canadian bourgeoisie to more effectively operate the ideological division of labor between the right in power/left in opposition in anticipation of future class confrontations in the offing, once a still buoyant Canadian economy succumbs to the shoals of the global economic crisis.

Nevertheless, the current arrangement is still fraught with difficulties for the Canadian bourgeoisie. First, the brazen, often callous, Harper Government—whom over 60 percent of voters rejected—remains in power. By the time its “mandate” is done in 2015, it will have been in power for nine years. This follows a thirteen-year period of corruption laden Liberal Party rule, which was largely built on “splits on the right,” before the unification of the Conservative Party in 2003. Despite its image as a more flexible multi-party democracy vis a vis its neighbor to the south, the Canadian state is currently unable to produce a ruling team other than the same old corrupt Liberals or Conservatives. The recent attempt to give the Liberal Party a new face by bringing in Harvard History professor Michael Ignatieff as party leader fell flat on its face, with Conservative attack ads painting him as something less than a true Canadian for having lived so long in the United States. Ignatieff himself was unable to win his own suburban Toronto riding. As it currently stands, in order to give the state a new veneer, the Canadian bourgeoisie would have to bring the NDP to power, a prospect that would risk upsetting the ideological division of labor, and a result that seems unlikely anytime in the near future given the electoral map of Canadian politics.

Moreover, in order to make the NDP the official opposition, the Canadian bourgeoisie had to so by “going the Québec route”, destroying the officially separatist federal party (BQ) in the process. Now, the NDP is indebted to its base in Québec and will be forced to adopt rhetoric more sensitive to the majority francophone province’s nationalist aspirations—complicating its relationship with the rest of Canada. Yes, the Canadian bourgeoisie was able to salvage this election to some degree with the elevation of the NDP, but the situation it finds itself in today remains fraught with danger for the legitimacy of the democratic and electoral illusion. Despite all the talk of an historic election, voter participation remained quite low at 61 percent, just slightly higher than 2008’s historic low (59 percent.)

For now, although the right/left division of labor between the Conservatives and the NDP is useful to the Canadian bourgeoisie given the threat of future class confrontations, the current arrangement seems unlikely to offer more than a modest boost to the state’s legitimacy. While it is not possible to predict the future evolution of Canadian politics with precision, it seems likely that the Canadian state will need to try to revitalize the Liberal Party as a viable party of government in the period ahead—most likely by appointing a young and appealing new face as party leader: Justin Trudeau, Liberal MP from Montreal and son of the late enigmatic Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, would seem to fit this bill to the tee. Although, the Liberal Party suffered an historic defeat in May, it was not decimated completely. As quick as the NDP was built up, it can be brought down again, most likely through the desertion of voters in Québec. In order to eventually replace the Conservatives as the ruling party should the situation call for it, the Canadian state needs a party capable of winning votes in both Québec and the rest of Canada in order to counteract strong Conservative party strength in the West. It is not clear if the NDP is capable of doing this, nor is it likely that the Canadian bourgeoisie wants to burden its social democratic party with national power at this time.

Already there are signs of discontent brewing within the Canadian working class that would be most effectively neutralized through a left opposition in close cooperation with the unions. On June 2nd, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers called a series of rotating strikes as contract negotiations with the Crown Corporation broke down. Although the current series of rotating strikes in different cities on different days remains firmly union-controlled, there is a real discontent brewing among postal workers over pay, deteriorating job conditions, safety issues and disciplinary policies. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the Canadian state will be able to respond to this growing discontent among the working class through the use of a political shell game featuring bold sounding rhetoric by the left party in opposition, which is frustrated by the right in power. Moreover, the Canadian state will be able to call on its still functioning union apparatus to control the workers’ anger. In this sense, despite the fact that Canada can perhaps claim a more consistent history of class struggle than the U.S., the Canadian bourgeoisie might now be much better placed to divert struggle when it arises than its southern neighbor currently is. Witness the difference in approach of the Canadian bourgeoisie in handling the Canada Post strike, compared with the attempts to virtually destroy public employee unions in Republican controlled states in the U.S. For the bourgeoisie, it pays to have a left party with credentials and a capable union apparatus to call on in time of need!

For the working class the lessons of this election are clear. There exists no bourgeois political party that is capable of defending our interests in the context of the global bankruptcy of the capitalist system. While Canada may have been spared the worst of this crisis up until now, the writing is on the wall that it will not be spared forever. Sky-high housing costs, spiraling consumer debt loads and tenuous employment are our future under any government of the bourgeoisie regardless of its partisan badge. Workers will have to take up the struggle on its own class terrain against parliament and all the parties of the bourgeois class.

Henk, 06/07/11.