VANCOUVER, British Co-lumbia – After 13 years of center-right rule, angry voters punished the incumbent Liberal Party on June 28 by giving them a minority government. Not only did the Liberal Party lose 37 seats in Parliament – dropping to 135 – but its popular vote shrank to 37 percent, three points less than four years ago. The Conservative Party acquired 98 seats and captured 29.6 percent of the vote, down 8 percent from what the Conservatives and Canadian Alliance (now merged) had won in 2000.

While polls showed a Conservative Party victory imminent, Liberal leader Paul Martin was able to steal victory from the jaws of defeat by persuading many voters, particularly those who traditionally support the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP), to vote Liberal in order to avert a Conservative win. These voters feared that a Conservative government would roll back social programs and human rights gains made by gays, lesbians and women.

Martin campaigned from the left, emphasizing similarities between the Liberal Party and the NDP. He presented his party as a progressive, center-left party interested in spending more money on health care and cities, and setting up a national day care program for children.

In the final days of the campaign, the Liberals ran television ads further inflaming fears of a Conservative victory. “Are you more angry at the Liberals or more worried about what the Conservatives might do?” asked one ad, with an image of a gun pointing toward the viewer and a dissolving Canadian flag.

The big winners were third parties, which garnered 33.7 percent of the vote. The NDP captured 15.7 percent of the vote, up from 8.5 percent in 2000, and 19 seats, a gain of six. The Green Party received 4.3 percent of the vote, up from 0.8 percent in 2000, but because of Canada’s first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system, it failed to win any seats. In its best showing so far, the left-leaning Bloc Quebecois won 50 percent of the vote, and 54 seats, in Quebec. The remaining seven parties and independent candidates won 5.6 percent of the vote.

While the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) received a lot of attention (its web site reported 3.5 million hits during the campaign), its 30-plus candidates running all across the country received relatively few votes. The CPC’s vote was kept low by several factors: lack of national and local media coverage, insufficient resources for mass advertising, an electoral system that discourages people from voting for small third parties, and strategic voting by many would-be supporters wanting to keep the Conservatives out of power.

Despite its modest vote tally, the CPC welcomed the fact that voters rebuffed the Liberals and Conservatives. In a news release, the Party’s central executive committee said, “The minority-government situation in which the Liberals will have to make certain concessions to opposition parties may open up prospects for extra-parliamentary forces to exert greater pressure. This could blunt the pro-corporate agenda of the Liberals, and even win certain reforms.”

Voter turnout was relatively low. According to Elections Canada, about 61 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

Given that the Liberals do not have a strong majority in Parliament, they will have to work closely with other parties. To pass legislation, the new government will need 155 votes, 20 short of what it has now. While many political analysts are suggesting that the Liberals will look to the NDP and Bloc Quebecois for support, this is doubtful, given Martin’s right-wing leanings. As finance minister during the 1990s, he cut social programs and taxes for the wealthy and supported NAFTA, privatization and deregulation. As prime minister he pursued the same course, even signaling the government’s interest in participating in President Bush’s missile defense shield.

Already, the Liberals are trying to allay corporate fears that the new government will lean to the left. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Martin and possibly others will likely visit Toronto soon to calm business concerns that the new Liberal government will work closely with the NDP.

The author can be reached at tpelzer@sprint.ca.

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