Tom Mulcair, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, speaking in Ottawa, June 2015.
Just two short weeks remain until Canada goes to the polls to conclude what has become the country’s most dramatic federal election campaign in a generation. After Canada’s three main political parties traded places as frontrunner for its first few weeks, the race is beginning to clarify and a tight race is developing between the incumbent Conservatives and their rival Liberals. In the French-speaking province of Québec, the once-commanding lead held by the center-left New Democratic Party has been evaporating, its support bleeding across the political spectrum.
For the NDP’s leader, Thomas Mulcair, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be an historic election, where the New Democrats would use their base in Québec to pick up momentum across the country and lead Canada’s government for the first time in history. Instead, Canada’s political spectrum is shifting like quicksand: center is left, left is right, up is down, and the NDP is getting squeezed into the center.
Canada’s New Democratic Party was founded in the 1960’s as a social democratic movement, and was historically the third (sometimes fourth or fifth) party in seat-count in Canada’s Parliament. In 2011, however, the party’s charismatic leader, Jack Layton, rode a sudden, massive “orange wave” (a reference to the party’s colors) in the province of Québec to win over 100 seats and form the Official Opposition in federal Parliament for the first time. Layton passed away from cancer just a few short months after his party’s historic victory, and was replaced by his deputy Thomas Mulcair, a former provincial cabinet minister in Québec. Mulcair has been lauded as one of the best Opposition Leaders Canada has seen in decades, and at the start of the campaign, the NDP was polling well nationally.
Mulcair faced a problem that had never confronted one of his fellow New Democrats: being an electoral front-runner. The NDP has never governed at the federal level in Canada. Generally, when the party’s provincial wings have formed government, it has ended badly. To battle concerns that the party would do nothing but tax-and-spend in office, Mulcair controversially committed to only running balanced budgets if his party won power on October 19th. This pledge raised eyebrows given the massive spending promises the party has made, promising to introduce nationwide public day care and expand Canada’s universal healthcare system to include prescription drugs.
Further muddying the waters, Mr. Mulcair insisted he would not, under any circumstance, raise personal income taxes or sales taxes, and scaled back his proposed corporate tax hike to a meager 17% — he had originally promised to hike it to above 20%. He is the first New Democrat leader in recent memory who is even remotely open to the idea of further oil pipeline construction. Perhaps as a result of his heterogenous platform, Mulcair was slowly winning over Canadians who had never even thought of voting NDP before with promises of balance and gradual change.
In his attempt to appear moderate, however, Mr. Mulcair has perhaps unintentionally turned his back on his Québec base. He has been roundly criticized for his confusing stance on Québec separatism, which stands in stark contrast to a previous ruling on the matter issued over fifteen years ago by Canada’s Supreme Court. His party’s chief rival for soft-nationalist votes in the francophone province, the Bloc Québécois, has hammered the NDP for opposing both military intervention against the so-called Islamic State and the incumbent Conservative government’s ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. The NDP’s iron-grip on la belle province has gradually started to loosen over the course of the campaign. Though the party still leads in Québec, they hold only a single digit lead over the Liberals, with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois very close behind.
Meanwhile, in English Canada, Canada’s other progressive parties have scrambled to attract disenchanted left-of-center voters, feeling abandoned by the NDP’s race to the centre to look ready to govern. Green Party leader Elizabeth May has gone on the offensive against Mulcair, attacking the NDP for their support of several controversial pipelines set for construction in British Columbia. Looking at provincial polling numbers, it appears her attacks may be working.
More notably, the historically centrist Liberal Party has also scrambled to attract one-time New Democrats. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has promised his government would hike income taxes on high-earning households, legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, and perhaps most significantly, run small deficits for the first three years of their four-year mandate, pumping billions of dollars into the economy to improve Canada’s infrastructure.
It’s not just the parties’ policies that have swapped, though – their leaders have started to take on each other’s qualities. The highly aggressive, prosecutorial style that defined Mulcair’s tenure as Opposition Leader has vanished from his persona in the televised election debates, replaced by a much more reserved and statesmanlike Mulcair. Instead, it is Justin Trudeau who has become Harper’s bombastic, aggressive adversary in the election debates, catching many by surprise. Perhaps even worse, in an attempt to capitalize on feelings that Trudeau, the youngest of the three party leaders by about a decade, is too immature to be Prime Minister, Mulcair has taken in the debates to making snide, off-handed remarks criticizing the Liberal leader on everything from his relative inexperience to his privileged upbringing. It is unclear who in the NDP war room thought this was a good idea, but it has ended up making Mulcair appear childish, partisan and vindictive, furthering comparisons to Mr. Harper.
Slowly but surely, New Democrat support is bleeding to the Liberal Party in English Canada. In Québec, however, NDP support, particularly outside of Montréal, is shifting to an unlikely group: the Conservative Party of Canada, which until Mulcair’s slow descent was deeply unpopular in the country’s second-largest province. For the first time in at least twenty years, the Conservative Party stands a reasonable chance of winning dozens of seats across the province of Québec, almost all of which are currently held by New Democrats.
Momentum is a powerful force in politics, and unless Mulcair can recover from his dropping numbers in Québec, his party will likely be relegated to third party status once again. In an election as volatile as the current one, though, it remains to be seen who, between Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau, will benefit most from the upheaval.
Disclosure: Benson Cook is campaigning for the Liberal Party of Canada candidates in the Montréal federal electoral districts of Mount-Royal and Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île de Sœurs.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.