Election analysts and writers in the US are focused almost solely on the Presidential race which is more than a year away. But there is an election on October 19 that can perhaps tell us something about next year.
Canada, our neighbor to the North, just entered its electoral cycle less than two weeks ago after Prime Minister Stephen Harper requested the formal dissolution of his government.
A few details are necessary to understand the differences between the US and Canada. First, Canada utilizes a parliamentary system of government. This means that the head of government is elected from the majority body in Parliament (Prime Minister) as opposed to the general electorate (President).
Second, while Canada uses a first-past-the-post system like the US for single member district elections, party loyalty is more highly valued. This means, unlike in the US, members of a political party cannot create a unique individual brand like they can here (think formerly conservative, Southern Democrats).
Canadian elections can occur in two ways. The Prime Minister can dissolve his government and inform the Governor General, or the majority party can rule for five years until a new election is automatically called.
Since 2006, Conservatives have controlled the Canadian Parliament. That election, conservatives gained a minority of seats and struggled to garner a majority to enact a fiscally conservative agenda. In 2008 another election was called that resulted in minor gains for the party. In 2011 Conservatives finally won a majority in Parliament for the first time in over two decades. That majority might be coming to an end however.
A wave of populist angst has swept Canada much the same as in the US. Conservatives have struggled to stay at the forefront of this wave. The party most able to exploit this angst is the formerly irrelevant New Democratic Party.
In 2011 the party blew apart the formerly Quebec based Bloc de Quebec and gained a significant foothold in Parliament. The NDP is running on a platform very similar to the Democratic Party. They are calling for quality childcare, capping greenhouse gas emissions, investing billions in infrastructure and transportation, and preserving entitlements (Medicare and national pension system).
Such a platform might not be so appealing to voters if the economy was humming along. But the initial boost the Canadian economy received after the financial crisis of 2008 has faded. While the US economy has hobbled along for half a decade, the phenomenon is relatively new for Canada. And while US voters can vent their disapproval with a Democratic administration, Canadians who can do the same with conservative leadership.
Perhaps forecasting what is to come the NDP took control of the conservative Alberta legislative session for the first time in history. Public opinion polls show the conservatives are likely to lose their majority and may not even retain a plurality in Parliament. Further adding to Conservatives woes is an ongoing scandal which is tarnishing the party’s efficient, transparent governmental model.
It remains to be seen whether the NDP’s early success will last. Just like the Democratic Party here at home, they promise big but cannot come up with specifics on where funding for these ideas will come from.
Further, prior polling in the 2014 US elections–and 2015 British and Israel elections–showed a distinct leftward slant. In all three cases the polling was woefully inaccurate. The Israeli right-wing Likud Party defied expectations and held control of Parliament. In Britain, Conservatives gained a surprising majority of seats in London. And you know what happened last year at home.
In the cases of Israel and Britain, right-wing parties co-opted populist movements to their benefit. The 2014 election here at home was less about populism and more simple electoral dynamics. So Republicans would be foolish to simply assume a populist movement would benefit them. If you want a case-in-point, just look at how appealing Donald Trump’s populist appeal is to the general electorate.
Bernie Sander’s appeal in many ways reflects the support the NDP is getting in Canada. Railing against the political establishment, calling for massive investments with no plan to pay for them, refusing to touch entitlements to make them more sustainable, are similar to the NDP’s appeal in Canada. The only difference is Sanders is essentially railing against seven years of his own party’s rule. The NDP has the benefit of blaming Conservative rule in Canada.
These factors should make analysts and the general public look North for what we could see next year. If Canadians are willing to embrace a populist appeal based on governmental intervention it might indicate that Americans are willing to do the same.