Why are the conservatives popular in Canada

The Liberal Party’s election victory was curious because its candidates took nearly half the seats with less than a third of the popular vote.

It marks only the second time in Canada’s history that a governing party will take power with such a low share of the vote. David Moscrop, a political theorist at the University of Ottawa, tweeted that “the last and only time a party has formed government with less than 35 percent of the national popular vote was John A. Macdonald in 1867 — with 34.8 percent.”

This vote beats the 1867 record, with the Liberal popular vote settling around 33 per cent.

Stephen Harper’s win over Paul Martin in 2006 was close to this level, when his Conservatives took 36.27 per cent of the popular vote to win 99 seats.

Even more unusual in Monday night’s vote, it appeared the Liberals were not even the first place party in terms of absolute number of votes.

The second place Conservative Party, which won only 121 seats or 36 per cent of the total, did so with more than 34 per cent of the popular vote, a full percentage point more than the Liberals.

For Liberals, this outcome speaks to the efficiency of their vote, which is evidently spread more widely and evenly than the more clustered Conservative vote. But for Canadians in general, for a party to win a plurality of seats without a plurality of votes is the outrage scenario that has inspired proponents of electoral reform.

It was the Liberals themselves who campaigned in 2015 on a platform that pledged to change the way governments are elected, and to find some other way, such as ranked ballots, to spread influence and power among all the parties who earn the votes of citizens, rather than just those who are “first past the post.”

That pledge was abandoned when the Liberal government was unable to find wide support from other parties for its plans. It claimed to be reluctant to make the changes unilaterally.

“For one Party to do so on its own would invite legitimate criticism that such a change was being made solely to further the interests of that particular Party. Such a change would be abhorrent to Canadian’s sense of fairness and to the idea of democratic process itself,” wrote Liberal MP John Wilkinson in an open letter after the proposal was abandoned in 2017. “If the Liberal Government, as a majority government, tried to ram through a change of this magnitude with so many competing voices and opinions, there would, quite rightly, be outrage on the part of many Canadians.”

Wilkinson, who on Monday easily won re-election in Vancouver North with 42.6 per cent of the vote against 27.1 per cent for his nearest challenger, said he was certain that decision did not mark the end of Canada’s “conversation” about changing the way it elects governments.

If last night’s results are a guide, he was correct. The unusual result can be spun as an asterisk on the government’s legitimacy, and it can serve as an inspiration to others who did not benefit quite so much from an efficiently distributed support base.

That much is clear from other countries with similar experiences. U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, found the only possible path to his presidency by winning Florida and the Rust Belt, despite losing the popular vote to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Al Gore similarly won the popular vote over George W. Bush in 2000, but lost the presidency after an intense legal battle in Florida.

A similar result happened in Britain in 1974, when the Conservative Edward Heath took the popular vote but four fewer seats than his Labour rival Harold Wilson. The result was a hung Parliament, and Heath resigned after failing to command the confidence of the House.

When he campaigned in 2015, Trudeau said that election would be Canada’s last under “first past the post.” He vowed to bring about an “electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and give us a better level of governance.”

Had he actually done so, his party would not likely have won such an efficient victory in 2019.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: josephbrean

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