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May 5, 2011 | 20:34 GMT

5 mins read

Implications of a Conservative Victory in Canada

MIKE RIDEWOOD/Getty Images
Summary
Canada's incumbent Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, won a majority government in the country's May 2 elections. As a result of the majority win and the collapse of the Liberal Party — previously the main opposition party in Canada's House of Commons — the administration can spend the next four years focusing on the issues it considers important. One of the main areas Ottawa is sure to focus on is securing its sovereignty claims in the potentially resource-rich Arctic region.
Canada's incumbent Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, won almost 40 percent of the vote in the country's May 2 national election and, for the first time since it took power in 2006, took a majority of the seats in Canada's 308-member House of Commons. It is the first time any Canadian political party has had a majority victory since Jean Chretien's win as head of the Liberal Party in 2000. The Liberals, formerly the leading opposition party, were soundly defeated, dropping from 77 seats to 34. Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party, resigned his leadership position May 3. The left-of-center New Democrat Party (NDP), led by Jack Layton, became the leading opposition party, winning 102 seats (the NDP previously held 37 seats). The Conservatives' majority win, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Party, means the Harper administration has a chance to govern essentially unilaterally for at least a full term (four years) if not longer. This will give Ottawa an opportunity to focus on policy priorities, such as trying to consolidate sovereignty claims in the Arctic. (click here to enlarge image) The Ignatieff-led Liberal Party passed a no-confidence motion against the Harper government March 25 — a move which dissolves the government and triggers a new election — and then lost the election. This debacle, along with general voter fatigue with the Liberals, means the Liberal Party likely will go into a long period of introspection and thus become ineffective, at least for Harper's next four-year term. This is not to say the Liberals are finished forever, but their immediate future looks bleak. The Liberals could have been declining for years, amid a lack of continuity in leadership and resultant policy inconsistency and party infighting. The party struggled to govern amid leadership changes, from Chretien (prime minister from 1993-2003), to Paul Martin (prime minister from 2003-2006), to Bill Graham (interim party leader in 2006) and then Stephane Dion (party leader from late 2006 to 2008) before selecting Ignatieff, a former political science professor at Harvard University, as the party's head at the end of 2008. Of course, the Conservatives were once in the position the Liberals are in today. In 1993, the Progressive Conservative government was dramatically defeated, going from a majority of 169 seats to merely two. This defeat — a result of several issues, including a perceived closeness with the United States that Harper will be mindful of for his own administration — led the Progressive Conservatives into an era of self-examination. Only after the Progressive Conservatives went through a series of leadership changes and merged with the Alberta-based Reform party, ultimately becoming the Conservative Party, did the right-of-center movement in Canada become a viable force again. No longer tethered by the need to accommodate the opposition to pass legislation, the Harper administration can focus on consolidating policy priorities. Canada's foreign policy has been muted during the Harper administration. The government has acted as a middle-ranking power working with limited resources, consolidating its efforts primarily in economic relations. It is more selective than its predecessor government in spending political capital abroad — for example, downgrading relations in Africa — and has involved its military in a limited number of engagements (like counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and participation in the NATO operation in Libya) rather than wider security operations (like U.N. peacekeeping opportunities) of limited political interest. The Harper government likely will try to make more gains by participating in high-profile international political and security initiatives. Ottawa likely will make another bid for a term in the U.N. Security Council, especially since the rival that defeated it in its last attempt, Portugal, is now suffering from economic difficulties. Canada also will look to reinforce its modest expeditionary force capability, possibly acquiring 65 new F-35 fighter aircraft to replace CF-18s first purchased in the late 1970s, to be able to integrate with U.S. and other NATO forces internationally. For homeland security, Canada will continue working to harmonize its policy with the United States. But in terms of defending the homeland, because Canada enjoys security guarantees provided by the United States, Ottawa does not need a large-scale, independent power projection capability (and the cost to acquire such a capability, which by definition would have to be global as there is no single region Canada realistically can dominate, would effectively bankrupt the government). The Harper government is likely to focus much of its policy on the Arctic, as Ottawa does not want to cede sovereignty to other countries touching the sparsely populated region — including the United States and Russia, as well as Denmark and Norway. This is not just a security and economic issue for Canada; it is an issue for the entire North American continent. Ottawa will spend political capital in the far north, mounting military and security patrols and acquiring a heavy ice breaker capability, in order to consolidate its claims of sovereign control over the potentially resource-rich Arctic (the one area the United States does not guarantee security for and instead often subverts Ottawa's claims over). The net result of the May 2 election is that the Conservatives need not govern with the same sense of caution as they did prior to May 2. The Harper administration can use this new freedom to focus on the issues — domestic and foreign — it deems important.

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