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The beauty and the beast of democracy

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Out of left field, Canadians suddenly have good reason to get out the popcorn and settle in to watch the polls close on Monday. A week, even two, into this election campaign, no one was predicting the rise in the NDP support.

Now, even the Tories are sweating it as opinion polls start to show their numbers eroding against Jack Layton's surprise surge.

What initially looked like a potential majority for Stephen Harper has begun to look like another minority. Having dissolved Parliament with 143 seats -- not so short of the 155 required for majority -- the Tories may come back weaker, not stronger, for their trouble.

Quebecers may have led the country's social democratic turn, but there had to be a latent layer of country-wide support for a swell to have rapidly put New Democrats within reach of official Opposition status. Tired of the same ol' bi-partisan jousting in Parliament, many Canadians looked for an alternative and a weakening Liberal party painted the NDP as an obvious safe haven.

Manitobans have seen something like it before. The parallels are not perfect, but this bears some resemblance to the 1988 provincial election.

Sharon Carstairs, no stranger to Manitobans as Liberal leader here and the party's lonely MLA, took the province by storm and kept Gary Filmon's hopeful Progressive Conservatives -- the PCs went into the campaign with a daunting 50 per cent support in opinion polls -- to minority status.

From one seat, Carstairs launched her party, composed of some painfully obvious political neophytes, into official Opposition status. The Liberals won 20 seats to the Tories' 25. It was a remarkable return from the political wilderness.

The political lore has it that if the 1988 campaign had lasted one more week, Manitoba -- polarized between the Tories and NDP for decades -- would have been looking at its first Liberal government since 1958.

What swept Manitoba was a certain measure of tedium with both main parties and a viable alternative in the Liberals, almost entirely built upon the personality of a woman who spoke of being fiscally conservative, socially progressive and at odds with the partisan bickering in the legislature.

The Liberals capitalized in Winnipeg, taking seats from both the NDP and Conservatives, but the results showed respectable polling in many rural seats, as well.

The major factor was that support for the governing NDP plummeted: Dogged by controversy, the Pawley government saw its popularity drop through the floor. Much of its core vote stayed home in 1988, and centre-left swing voters went to the Liberals. But the Tories didn't see the train coming and drew a bead on Carstairs too late in the game. Some soft Tory votes bled to Carstairs.

The Harper Tories have been concentrating their game in Ontario, hoping to pick up a handful of seats to help get over the 12-seat hump that denied them a majority in 2008. The strategy may sacrifice a whole lot of seats in Quebec, where they held 11 ridings at dissolution.

Now, the NDP is starting to rise in Ontario, too.

It looks all good to Layton, who has started to speak of himself in prime ministerial terms.

It remains to be seen how serious Canada is with this new-found affinity for the NDP. One pollster this week projected the party would win as many as 92 seats -- 57 more than it had before the election was called and more than double its record 43 to date.

Quite the feather in Jack's cap.

Here's a thought for the pollsters, pundits and voters: What would have happened had this election campaign gone on one more week?

And here's one for Jack Layton: Sharon Carstairs saw her party punted from official Opposition in Manitoba two years later. By 1993, the party was cut down to a mere three seats in the legislature. Voters retreated to their comfortable patterns when the NDP, under a charismatic guy, got its groove back.

I think what Canada needs now is less minority government and more stability, but I am intrigued by the will of the people, the beauty and the beast of democracy.

Ain't it interesting when Canadian voters break out and buck predictability?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 A19

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