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A merciful majority for voters

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Faced with an election nobody apparently wanted, and which few thought would result in change, voters showed once again that elections matter.

After five years as minority governors and years more flailing away in the political wilderness before that, the Tories finally, mercifully won a majority government. Mercifully, if only because this will spare the country another three or four years of dysfunctional, hyper-partisan minority government that was really not serving anyone's interests.

A majority, but what kind of majority? Results seemed to suggest Harper has repeated what former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien accomplished in 1997, namely a majority government with the bare minimum of votes necessary. Voter turnout was more robust and that makes Harper's 40 per cent share of popular vote more meaningful. But it is more evidence that no single party will ever capture more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. And that's sad.

First, the positive side: It was a campaign that defied conventional logic. The historic surge of the NDP in this campaign was one for the ages. Never before has a party doubled its share of the popular vote in one campaign, and never before has a party leapt over the second-place party and actually threatened the front-runners. That threat did not materialize, but the NDP did make history with an unprecedented haul in Quebec that practically wiped the Bloc Québécois right off that province's electoral map.

Poll results in the last third of the campaign suggested voters were running away from the Tories and Liberals. The great fear was that the NDP surge would help the Conservatives win seats from the Liberals with a split of the left-of-centre vote. And that in fact did occur. NDP supporters will have to temper their joy with the knowledge they helped the Tories win a majority government, just as Reformers and Canadian Alliance candidates helped the Liberals to three majorities in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Where do we go from here? Stephen Harper asked for a majority to stabilize the government and the economy, and to provide Canada with some certainty heading into what are undoubtedly uncertain times. It marks a fairly significant accomplishment for Harper that he could even utter the 'M' word in this campaign. In past campaigns, every time Harper mentioned the word majority, voters would run and hide. This is a prime minister who has come a long way in the last five years and, despite running what most observers believed was a flawed campaign, the majority government he captured Monday night was well-earned.

Conservative sources continue to support the notion Harper will not use the majority to unleash the secret, socially conservative agenda his critics have accused him of harbouring. One senior Manitoba Tory suggested Harper, interested in governing for the long term, will "mix a bit of water into his wine" in an effort to make the Conservative majority more palatable and give it a longer life span. Given the results Monday night, the Liberals will have to think long and hard about whether they still have a reason to exist.

The Grits were decimated on Monday night, reduced to numbers in the House of Commons that can only mean their core vote, typically believed to be about 25 per cent of the electorate, has been dramatically reduced. Many of them feared or hated Michael Ignatieff and didn't give a damn about whether he ran a good campaign or not. Now, the Liberal brand is so damaged, the party's very future is in doubt.

As for the NDP, Monday's result is nothing less than a miracle. Having led the party for years with no hint there was greater success in the offing, Jack Layton has accomplished a great and historic result for his party. He will be the leader of the official Opposition and will have brought his party to a level where it can at least think about challenging the Tories for the right to govern Canada. That is a surprising, even frightening, thought for many Conservatives and Liberals. But momentum is a powerful commodity, and the NDP has it.

In the final analysis, the Tories ran a pretty bad campaign, but ran it into a shift in voter loyalty that allowed them to come up the middle and capture that elusive majority. Harper is now living the Chrétien dream, where less is more and majority governments are a by-product of mathematical equations.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2011 A1

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