Canadians were to head to the polls yesterday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives scrambling to hold off a surge from Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party (NDP) in elections likely to produce no clear majority and a struggle to form a new coalition government.
A five-week campaign has seen Tory hopes fade for broaching the 40 percent threshold that typically translates into a majority in the House of Commons as the NDP has surged, while the venerable Liberals faced a devastating decline.
In a fourth election in seven years, the ruling Conservatives, which have led two back-to-back minority governments, are now facing a potential loss of power.
Depending on how the coalitions line up, the nation could see its first government headed by dark horse Layton’s left-leaning NDP.
According to the latest Nanos Research poll published on Sunday, 37 percent supported the Conservatives compared with 30.6 percent for the NDP and 22.7 percent for the Liberals.
A separate poll by Ekos Politics showed the Conservatives at 34.6 percent, the NDP at 31.4 percent and the Liberals at 20.4 percent.
Coming on the heels of frenzy over Prince William and Kate Middleton’s nuptials in Britain and amid the National Hockey League playoffs, the election risked becoming an afterthought.
However, two televised debates in the middle of last month unleashed a staggering rise of the NDP, first in seat-rich Quebec, which could return mostly federalist MPs to Ottawa for the first time in 20 years at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, then nationwide.
Since then, the two main parties shifted their attacks on the untested NDP.
Harper warned that if his party was sufficiently weakened, the NDP and Liberals could form a coalition in the weeks ahead to wrest power from the Tories.
He said Layton’s “folksy talk” masked a “sobering reality of crushing taxes, out-of-control deficits and massive job losses,” contrasting this with his Conservatives’ deficit-slaying plank.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said of Layton: “He’s got a fantastic smile ... but the question every Canadian has to ask is what’s behind the smile.”
“Not much,” he said.
Layton is seen by many Canadians as honest and a defender of the middle class, the type of person with whom voters say they would be happy to share a beer.
The contrast could not be stronger with Harper and Ignatieff. Canadians are quick to acknowledge Harper’s skill at managing the economy, but his tendency to avoid answering questions from the public and the media during the campaign has worked against him.
This lack of transparency and the refusal of the Conservative government to more freely provide information to parliament were the basis of the March 25 no-confidence vote that triggered the election.
Ignatieff, a Harvard academic, author and human rights champion, has struggled to form a connection with common people since his arrival on the Canadian political scene in 2006, after decades spent abroad.