The party with the most seats wins? Not so fast

Americans waited 35 days after their 2000 election to find out who would be their president, but Canadians may find themselves waiting even longer in 2015.

Americans waited 35 days after their 2000 election to find out who would be their president, but Canadians may find themselves waiting even longer in 2015.

We have become accustomed to the idea that the “winner” is the party with the most seats. But in our system of government matters are not that simple, and there are a number of scenarios that could play out after we go to the polls on October 19.

If the NDP won a plurality – that is, the biggest share of seats among the three parties, but short of an absolute majority – this could provide a certain outcome. But if there is one thing the disparate polls agree on it is that the #OrangeCrush has become a “#OrangeCrash” (thanks Twitter). As a result the odds of the NDP winning the most seats on Election Day seems to have plunged in recent weeks.

It turns out that holding onto the base the party built during the 2011 election in Quebec, while building support in English Canada, is more complicated than it sounds. The rise of the niqab as a real issue in this election has put the NDP in a tough spot.

To do a U-turn and sell out an infinitesimally small, identifiable religious minority that is already viewed with suspicion by wide swaths of the country would not only be profoundly unprincipled but would probably be too much for many progressives. This is particularly true in the context of an election campaign where the NDP has made an effort to run to the right of the Trudeau Liberals on a number of issues. But many in Quebec with anxieties about the preservation of culture and a strong secular “laicite” tradition views matters differently.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have picked up steam in recent weeks, but the view among many analysts is that their vote is relatively “inefficient,” meaning they could win the popular vote and still fall short in the seat count.

Electoral inefficiency can happen in a number of ways. Have your support spread too thin and you come in second in a lot of ridings but don’t win any. Along the same lines, winning massive majorities in certain ridings may create the perception of popular support but won’t do you much good either.

The general consensus is that the Liberals would need to win big on the popular vote to actually win the most seats, and at the moment – although there is a lot of variance from poll to poll – they are about neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. We could be in for one of those uncomfortable “mandates” where the party that wins the most seats loses the popular vote, raising fundamental questions about our model of democracy.

So what does this all mean? If an election were to be held today I expect that the Conservatives would win a plurality of the seats. I’m less certain that they will form a minority government – at least a lasting one.

To govern, they will need to get support from the other parties, and both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair have indicated that they have no interest in propping up Stephen Harper. And how could they? With the disdain that progressives in Canada hold for this prime minister, keeping him in power an hour longer than he needs to be could be political suicide.

But then what? The prime minister can continue to govern without recalling Parliament for a little while, but eventually he will have to face the House of Commons.

If he loses a confidence vote, where do we go from there? Will the governor general call an election only a few months after the last one was held? And what if we have another election with the exact same outcome? Will the Conservatives get to govern in perpetuity because they have a plurality of seats even though they can’t get the support of Parliament?

Will the governor general allow one of the other parties to govern? Who knows. This is a governor general who was selected by the prime minister, and given Harper’s political cunning it seems likely that when he was chosen this scenario was not wholly absent from consideration.

There is precedent in Canadian history for parties that don’t have a plurality of the seats taking power. In 1925, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals got fewer seats (101) than Arthur Meighan’s Conservatives (116). King, as the incumbent, claimed the right to continue governing with the support of the Progressive party – together the two had more seats than the Conservatives – until scandal led to a vote of non-confidence months later.

It also happened in Ontario in 1985, when David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s New Democrats teamed up to defeat the minority Conservative government on a throne speech only weeks after the provincial election.

But how would the public react? The last time anyone other than the party that won the most seats suggested they might want to assume power there were howls of outrage. The idea that the party which wins the most seats automatically gets to govern – while not necessarily the Westminster tradition – seemed to have become an informal populist “convention” of its own.

Barring some last minute swing or some sort of decisive victory on election night we could be entering a period of political uncertainty. Interesting times to live in.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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