Divide and conquer -“Divide et impera” in Latin – was a favourite maxim of Roman statesmen. As anyone who took Western Civ at FH Collins will tell you, there is no way Julius Caesar could have conquered Gaul without local allies like the Aedui.
Stephen Harper isn’t an FH Collins grad, but he seems to have been reading his history somewhere. He knows he doesn’t have to get 50 per cent plus one vote. In fact, he would be quite happy with 40 per cent. As long as the Liberals, Greens and NDP divide the rest with 20 per cent each.
In this kind of situation, the greatest danger comes from the strongest opponent. With the Liberals at around 30 per cent in recent months, and the Greens and NDP both under 20 per cent, Harper acted with Roman ruthlessness. He spent millions on attack ads against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and ignored the other leaders.
Canadians have reacted much as Conservative headquarters probably hoped. One hears a lot of people saying things like, “I don’t know about Ignatieff, but Harper scares me so I’ll vote Green (or NDP).” This line of thinking suits Stephen Harper well. He doesn’t need your vote. He just needs the opposition to stay fragmented.
The numbers show how important this is.
I had a quick look at Elections Canada data from the 2008 election. There were 18 ridings where the margin of victory was less than five per cent and the Conservative and Liberal candidates were the top two vote getters. If you count such ridings with a margin of less than 10 per cent, the figure is almost 40 seats.
Winning these ridings would deliver a Conservative majority.
It also means that after the election, the federal political subsidies would be widely split. Each party gets about $2 per vote received, and a fragmented voter base means fragmented funding for the opposition parties. It would be difficult for any of the other parties, which generally raise less money than the Tories, to accumulate a critical mass of cash to counter Tory attack ads in the run-up to the next election.
The Greens and NDP generally don’t like this line of reasoning, since it encourages people to vote Liberal.
Recent Green messaging emphasizes the positive, and says that the Tories and Liberals are running campaigns based on fear.
“We should vote for what we believe in,” local Green candidate John Streicker said recently.
The NDP has also been stressing that Canadians shouldn’t fall for the lure of strategic voting. However, recent NDP strength in the polls now makes more NDP candidates the beneficiaries of strategic anti-Tory voting at the expense of the Liberals.
Both the Greens and the NDP know they must emasculate the centrist Liberal party to become the main alternative to the Tories. In the UK, this is how Labour replaced the British Liberals.
Recent polls must be giving NDP strategists hope that this is finally happening. The Nanos poll released last Sunday had the Liberals and NDP in a statistical tie for second place, each around 25 per cent. The Greens were about four per cent. The Tories were at 39 per cent nationally, and much higher in Ontario, BC and the Maritimes where they had almost 20-point leads. Importantly, the NDP was ahead of the Liberals in Quebec, the Prairies and BC.
If this poll reflects what happens on election day, then a Tory majority is probable.
But the latest EKOS poll went even further, with the NDP in position to win 100 or more seats. In this scenario, Jack Layton would be prime minister supported by the surviving Liberal MPs. It would be ironic if the Conservatives were too successful in battering the Liberals, and the NDP rode a surge into the election before the Tory war room had time to produce some nasty anti-Layton attack ads.
Here in the Yukon, Liberal Larry Bagnell won by 13 per cent last time. The Conservatives got 33 per cent, the Greens 13 per cent and the NDP nine per cent. Anecdotally, the Greens and Conservatives seem to have some momentum. And it would be hard for the NDP to do worse than last time. If the Liberal vote erodes here like it has nationally, then the Conservatives have a shot.
But voter intentions remain volatile, both locally and nationally. The Bloc Quebecois, Liberal and NDP numbers have all moved sharply in less than a week. Voters are digesting the thought of an NDP prime minister. That might change some minds. My forecast is that the NDP will win much fewer than 100 seats.
Essentially it comes down to how Yukoners and Canadians answer the vote-splitting question: should I vote for my first choice, or vote strategically to block my worst choice? Or even cast a protest vote for a party I don’t really want to see in power, just to send a message to the big parties.
Everyone has the right to vote for their favourite party. But that choice might have a cost. In the current political landscape, that cost is a Harper majority government.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.