In Unpredictable Canadian Elections, Plurality Is More Important Than Popularity

TORONTO — Stephen Harper did not get to be prime minister of Canada by persuading most of the country’s voters to put him in office, and that is not how he intends to keep the job in the general elections on Monday.

Thanks to a splintered opposition, Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party have prevailed in three straight elections and held power for nine years without ever winning more than 40 percent of the vote.

“A national election is not a popularity contest,” Mr. Harper saidin August, when he moved to dissolve Parliament.

With that first tactical strike, Mr. Harper opened Canada’s longest official federal campaign season in at least a century, an absorbing and at times strikingly vitriolic spectacle of political calculation. In broad strokes, Mr. Harper said his re-election would bring “stability, not risk.” The main opposition groups, the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, say they will restore Canadian traditions of progressive liberalism and roll back what they see as the Harper era’s bellicose posture in foreign affairs.Photo
Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party. CreditChris Wattie/Reuters

Another dynamic: After nine years in power, the Conservatives have worn out many voters, with about 70 percent of Canadians saying they want change in published polls and internal party polls.

One possible measure of how threatened Mr. Harper feels late in the race was the appearance at a party rally last week of Rob Ford, the former Toronto mayor notorious for using crack cocaine, public drunkenness and other offenses to polite society. Now a city councilor, Mr. Ford remains popular in parts of Toronto, but associating with him could cost Mr. Harper among socially conservative immigrants in the suburbs who strongly backed the Conservative Party four years ago.

Retail-level politics is now conducted in a dozen or so languages, as candidates try to reach voters at festivals and supermarkets, in community centers and on doorsteps. Nearly half of all residents in the Toronto suburbs were born outside Canada, in China, South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

Some ridings, or parliamentary districts, were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes in the last elections. This time, it is not just party machines that are trying to grab those seats. A swath of nonaligned voters, known as A.B.C.s, Anything But Conservative, have organized online to pool and swap votes.

For instance, Olivier Jarvis Lavoie, a 32-year old researcher who lives in a Toronto riding unlikely to vote Conservative, struck a deal with a friend, a Green Party supporter who lives in an Ottawa district where a Conservative candidate is competitive.

“He said, ‘If you’re willing to vote Green in your riding, I will vote for whichever candidate is best positioned to defeat the Conservative,’ ” Mr. Lavoie said.

As of Saturday, one campaign had drawn more than 89,000 pledges to switch votes in close-fought districts to candidates who seemed to have the best chance of beating the Conservative nominees.

“It’s a Rubik’s Cube here in Canada: a three-dimensional electoral map with history, immigration and vote switching,” said John Wright, a senior vice president with Ipsos Reid, a polling and marketing company.

Since August, each of the three big parties has led in one poll or another, but the robust, dizzying political culture puts the race well beyond the reach of trustworthy handicapping. At least six parties have fielded nearly 1,800 candidates for seats in all or some of the 338 ridings, spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and north to the Arctic. In each riding, a simple plurality determines the winner. Any party with a majority in Parliament — 170 or more members — selects the prime minister and forms the government.

“Even with six in 10 people hating them, the Conservatives could still win with a massive parliamentary majority at 38 percent of the popular vote, or a comfortable majority at 37 percent,” Mr. Wright said.

The same arithmetic might also work for the New Democrats, led by Thomas Mulcair, or the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister for 15 years into the early 1980s.

In their fight to be recognized as the standard bearers of change, Mr. Mulcair, 60, and Mr. Trudeau, 43, have been hostile to each other but both have said that they would try to block Mr. Harper from forming government if the Conservatives or their own parties do not get a majority.

Mr. Trudeau took over the Liberals in 2013 when the party was in shambles after a historic rout two years earlier. By all accounts, it has been restored to a position as a serious political force. Recent polls show it in the lead.

The youngest of the main candidates, Mr. Trudeau has led a campaign of high style and tight scripts, inviting photographers to see him sparring in a boxing ring, paddling a canoe, or picking pumpkins with his wife and their three young children. He recently outlined a child welfare program in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, saying that the arena’s seats could hold the 60,000 children who would be lifted out of poverty under the Liberal proposal. As a video drone operated by one of his aides buzzed overhead in the nearly empty stadium, he waved, smiled and boarded a bus.

His opponents have tried to use his age, relative inexperience, and youthful appearance against him. One early Conservative ad ran through a list of Mr. Trudeau’s supposed shortcomings, and concluded with the line, “Nice hair though.” Another favored punch line: “Just not ready.”

Mr. Mulcair was a bit more subtle, addressing Mr. Trudeau in debates as “Justin.”

The condescension may have backfired: Mr. Trudeau proved to be as forceful a presence as his opponents in debates that also included Elizabeth May of the Green Party, and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois.

For his part, Mr. Mulcair, the leader of what has traditionally been Canada’s most left-leaning major party, came into the campaign as the front-runner. The party had surprised even itself by sweeping seats in Quebec in 2011.

That support was shaken when the Harper government pursued a ban on the niqab, a face veil worn by some Muslim women, during citizenship ceremonies. Many in the French-speaking region were in favor of the ban but Mr. Mulcair opposed it, saying that while he was not comfortable with the niqab, the courts had ruled against prohibiting it. The Conservatives, Mr. Mulcair charged, were using it as a “weapon of mass distraction.” Mr. Harper said the ban “reflects our values as a society.” So far, polls suggest, the niqab debate may have undermined the New Democrats in Quebec, and coincided with their loss of ground elsewhere.

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