Yuan Yi Zhu is a researcher at the University of Oxford.
The basic rules of a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy are deceptively simple. The person who can enjoy the confidence of the chamber becomes the prime minister; a sitting prime minister has the first opportunity to form a government after an election, regardless of the number of seats held by him.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau is now in his second consecutive minority government, with seemingly no negative effects on his ability to govern.
This is thanks to a trust and supply agreement with the New Democratic Party. In the last two elections, it has won a plurality of seats, although it came in second in the national popular vote, a result of the popularity of the Liberal Party combined with its frustratingly efficient regional distribution of votes.
But what will happen, and the polls suggest might happen, if, after the next election, the Liberals come second in the vote count, but still form a government once again, thanks to some coalition politics?
According to the orthodox view, business will continue as usual. There is nothing to prevent the second and third largest parties, say, from getting together and preventing the majority party from ruling as long as it has the necessary number of votes in the House of Commons.
But Andrew Coyne, an erratic if sometimes perceptive Canadian columnist, has recently raised the possibility that such an outcome could lead to a political crisis.
His argument is essentially that the Conservatives have committed themselves, at least in recent elections, to the view that the largest party in the House of Commons should be the one to form the government. If the Conservatives hold a majority of the seats, but a left-wing coalition removes them from government, things could get ugly.
Coyne raised this scenario to advance one of his pet projects, namely electoral reform. However, it’s worth pondering how his scenario for the Tories will play out.
The most recent precedent, and the origins of the Conservatives’ view that the largest party should rule, dates from 2008, when the Conservatives were in a minority government under Stephen Harper. The second, third and fourth largest parties in the House of Commons signed an agreement to expel the Conservatives through a vote of no confidence and form a coalition government in their place.
Harper immediately branded the motley crew a “losers’ coalition” and had the Governor-General prorogue Parliament. When he returned after Christmas, the coalition was no more, having collapsed in the meantime. There were protests across the country, but most voters shrugged their shoulders and two years later gave a majority to the Conservatives.
But 2008-2009 is not a perfect precedent. The coalition government would have been a minority (the Quebec separatist Bloc Québécois was willing to distrust the Conservatives, but not to participate in the resulting coalition government). Much more important, Harper was the incumbent and could simply adjourn Parliament and wait for the opposition to fight among themselves.
This time, the liberals will be the headlines. They will have control over the timing of the convening of the new Parliament, which can occur weeks, if not months, after the polls close. In the meantime, they can negotiate a coalition deal at their leisure, whereas there is no party that could plausibly enter into a coalition with the Conservatives.
What can Pierre Poilievre, the conservative leader, do in these circumstances? He can, and most likely will, attack the liberals for forming yet another losers’ coalition; but beyond this he has little influence. The Canadian media is overwhelmingly hostile to him, and the weight of constitutional precedent, if not necessarily political morality, will be against him.
From there, it’s only a short walk to being labeled a voter denier (Canadians love to copy America’s pathological political language), which will scare suburban Ontarians, whose support the Conservatives they need to have a political future.
The best solution would be for Poilievre to win the next election outright. But frustratingly, despite leading in several dozen polls, the Tories aren’t doing well enough in the seat-rich Greater Toronto Area to win an overall majority, and cast millions of votes in solidly blue Western seats. it will do nothing for their prospects of forming a government.
Worse still, Coyne raises an even bleaker prospect for the Tories: that of a supply and trust deal between the Liberals and the New Democrats that will last indefinitely.
A decade ago, the two parties were still different enough to avoid this; The more business-focused liberals, the NDP still retains some of its heritage as a radical labor movement. But Trudeau has turned the Liberals into an unapologetically progressive party, so there are few obstacles to an open alliance between the two.
Harper was able to win a rare Conservative majority in 2012 in part because the progressive vote was split in a way that was very convenient for him. If the two main parties on the left manage to form a lasting alliance, the Tories could be out of power at the federal level for a generation or more, despite being the largest parliamentary party, while Trudeau makes Canada even more unrecognizable. . For many Canadians, this is a prospect not worth thinking about.