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Why Is Canada's Liberal Party So Dominant?

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it his goal to kill the party. The opposite happened.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Getty Images

According to some of the leading political thinkers in Canada, including the outgoing prime minister, Stephen Harper, who was defeated on Monday, the Liberal Party should not exist. Yet in defiance of not just Harper’s ideological opposition but also a considerable body of political science theorizing, the Liberals not only persist but still keep winning elections, such as the landslide that garnered Justin Trudeau a majority in Parliament. 

Canada has three major parties that vie for national leadership: the right-of-center Conservatives, the centrist Liberals, and the social democratic New Democratic Party. Of the three, the Liberals  are by far the most popular and also the most politically anomalous. Canada became a mature democracy in 1918, when women got the vote. Since then, there have been 29 elections, of which the Liberals have won 19. They’ve governed Canada for roughly 70 percent of the last century. Politically, the Liberals are chameleon act, shifting quickly from Bill Clinton–like centrism to social democratic measures that would make Senator Bernie Sanders proud. The New Democrats, who have never held power at a national level, complain that the Liberals steal all their best ideas, most famously single-payer health care, which began as an NDP initiative in Saskatchewan but became national under a Liberal government.  

There is a considerable body of political science in Canada that argues that the Liberal Party are doomed to be supplanted by a more forthrightly left-wing party. University of British Columbia graduate student David Moscrop summed up this school of thought in a column in the National Post earlier last July  when he wrote that he’s “confident that the decline of the Liberal party is the new normal. Canadians should get used to a world in which Liberal governments are a thing of the past.” In support of this contention, Moscrop cited “Duverger’s law” (named after the French academic Maurice Duverger) which “states that a plurality electoral system with single-member districts (like Canada’s first-past-the-post system) will tend towards a two-party system (split along left/right political lines).”

By Duverger’s Law, Canadian politics should resemble the United States, with two major parties clearly divided along left/right lines. But Canada remains strangely defiant of this so-called law. 

Moscrop’s column looks foolish in retrospect, but he wasn’t an outlier. Rather he was echoing an opinion voiced by other academics as well as journalists, who have regularly predicted the imminent death of the Liberal Party.

Duverger’s law is not merely an matter of academic theory. The leading believer in Duverger’s Law is none other Stephen Harper. Harper’s deepest political goal was not just to defeat the Liberals politically but to eliminate them as a party. Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper in the 1990s in the right-wing lobby group the National Citizens Coalition, wrote in a 2011 Globe and Mail column that Harper’s  “desire to eliminate the Liberals is something he and I discussed way back in the days when we worked together at the National Citizens Coalition. His theory, as explained to me, was that conservatism would be better served in this country if Canada had a two-party system, one that pitted right against left, free enterprise against socialism, Conservatives against New Democrats. He believed that, in such a polarized political environment, a conservative-oriented party would have a huge advantage over its left-wing rival.” 

Over the last ten years, until this recent election, Harper has been remarkably successful in trying to build up the NDP as the main rival and tear the Liberals apart. He’s done this partially by aiming his most destructive fire on the Liberals and also by occasionally working with the NDP, building them up as credible opposition. Harper’s polarization strategy reached it’s peak in the 2011 election when the Liberals under the hapless Michael Ignatieff received less than 19 percent of the vote and only 34 seats. The New Democrats became the official opposition for the first time, with nearly 31 percent of the popular vote and 103 seats, while the Conservatives won a majority with their 40 percent of the popular vote giving them 166 seats. 

Based on the 2011 election, both Duverger’s law and Harper’s lifelong dream were coming true. Yet now the Liberals have gone from third place to power. How did that happen?  

Going into the election, the three parties were remarkably close, with each having about a third of the support of the population. The NDP under Thomas Mulcair made a fatal mistake in hugging too close to the center. This allowed Trudeau’s Liberals to carve out a political space on the left by promising Keynesian deficits and infrastructure spending to jumpstart the economy. The Liberals found a sweet spot of winning over both disaffected progressives and also centrists who distrusted the NDP’s socialist past and lack of governing experience. 

Harper helped the Liberals by taking the election in a xenophobic direction, making an issue of Muslim women wearing the niqab during citizenship oaths and promising a “barbaric cultural practices” tipline. Although the polls were very tight, for a few days it looked like the niqab issue was gaining traction, which caused a panic on the left. The NDP was seen as most vulnerable on the niqab because their base of support is in Quebec, where a fervent politics of French-Canadian national cohesion have made the issue hottest. Because progressives felt the NDP was in risk of going down, there was a quick embrace of Trudeau’s Liberals as the party most likely to defeat Harper.

In the desperate last days of the elections, Harper started making some strange moves, even going to an event hosted by the disgraced former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. This embrace of Ford marked the end not just of a squalid, racist campaign but also Harper’s dream to live in a Canada where the Liberal Party was extinct. Although the Liberal Party remains an affront to both Harper and political theory, it regained its role as the voice of the Canadian center-left, which is where most voters are.  

In fact, the party that is facing the existential question posed by Duverger’s law is not the Liberals but the NDP. While the NDP can and does win in provinces like Manitoba and Alberta, it is facing a bleak national future. With the Liberals once again presenting themselves as a progressive alternative to the Conservatives, does Canada need two left of center parties? If Duverger’s law ever does hit Canada, it could be the NDP that gets kicked to the curb.