Monday, May 2, 2011

Canada Elections: Canadians head to the polls today

Canadians head to the polls today after a five-week campaign that saw the surprising rise of the New Democratic Party, the decline of the venerable Liberals, and the stagnation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Support for the left-leaning NDP has grown rapidly in recent weeks, while the Conservatives have been unable to break the 40 per cent support mark that typically translates into a majority in the House of Commons.

Coming in the same week as a media frenzy over the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Canada's election risked becoming an afterthought, especially since it is the fourth in seven years.

But the campaign's televised debates in mid-April unleashed the unexpected rise of Jack Layton and his NDP - first in Quebec, which has traditionally been more left-leaning than the rest of Canada, and then in other provinces in the sprawling country with a population of some 34 million.

"If we are going to make the winds of change happen, then we have a lot of work to do between now and the time that the polls close on Monday evening," Mr Layton said on Saturday morning in Montreal. "We have an historic opportunity here, and in fact it began right here in Quebec."

Conservatives and Liberals have shifted their campaign strategies as the "orange danger" - the NDP's colour - has grown, calling Mr Layton's plans for family aid and an improvement in the Canadian health system "unrealistic."

They have been quick to note that one NDP candidate in Quebec, who works in a bar, has been on vacation in Las Vegas rather than out campaigning.

But stories like this have done nothing to dampen the smiling and charismatic social democrat. Mr Layton is seen by many Canadians as a natural politician and a defender of the middle class, the type of person with whom voters say they would be happy to share a beer.
The contrast with Mr Harper is strong. Canadians are quick to acknowledge his skill at handling the economy, which has been the main theme of his campaign. But his tendency to avoid answering questions from the public and the media has worked against him.

This lack of transparency and the refusal of the Conservative minority government to more freely provide information to members of the House of Commons were the basis of the March 25 no-confidence vote.

If the Harper government is sufficiently weakened after the election, it may not be capable of leading a government.

Depending on today's outcome, it is theoretically possible for Mr Layton to head a coalition with the Liberals and to form a government with them.

Whatever happens, the vote is likely to confirm the decline in fortunes of the Liberal Party, which held power for most of the 20th century.

Its leader, the former university professor and writer Michael Ignatieff, has been unable to create the kind of buzz needed to beat the Conservatives and become prime minister.

If the Liberals lose their second place standing in the House of Commons, they could ask Mr Ignatieff to step down.

According to the latest results by the polling firm Nanos Research, published yesterday, 37 per cent of those surveyed supported Harper's Conservatives compared with 30.6 per cent for the NDP and 22.7 per cent for the Liberals.

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