Big Election Up North, Eh? Canada Hits the Polls

America's northern neighbor, longtime poster country for moderation, has just hollowed out its political center and significantly empowered its Conservative prime minister

CAPE BRETON, Nova Scotia -- In Canadian parliamentary elections, national parties feel obliged to run candidates in all 308 seats -- including districts where their organizations are weak or non-existent. This often forces them to nominate "pylons," placeholders untroubled by any prospect of winning office. Background checks for such trivialities as past activities, writings, or beliefs tend to be cursory.

Ah, but voters sometimes surprise, as Quebeckers did Monday when they turfed the separatist Bloc Quebecois and flocked instead to the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). When the election was called six weeks ago, the NDP held only one of Quebec's 75 seats in the federal parliament. Now it holds 58 from that province alone, another 44 from the rest of Canada.

After the election, NDP candidate Pierre-Luc Dusseault, 19, had planned to take up a summer job at a golf course before returning to the Universite de Sherbrooke for his second year in poly sci. Instead, he'll be going to Ottawa as Canada's youngest-ever MP -- at $157,731 per year.

In Quebec's Pontiac riding, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon fell to Sensei Mathieu Ravignat, a karate instructor who sought the same seat in 1997 as an independent supporting the Communist Party. (It's one sign of the differences between Canadian and U.S. politics that this youthful indiscretion never became much of an issue in the campaign.)

Ruth Ellen Brosseau won Berthier-Maskinonge, a French-speaking, rural riding northeast of Montreal, despite spending part of the campaign in Las Vegas, on a vacation trip booked before the election was called. The rest of the time she kept up her bartending job in Ottawa, a city three hours away--in a different province. Party officials declined to make Brosseau available for interviews because, well, her French needs work.

These are comic sidelights to Monday's stunning realignment of Canada's political landscape. What had been begun as a boring replay of elections in 2006 and 2008, ended instead in humiliation for the once dominant Liberal Party (led by former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff), propelled the NDP to its first-ever second-place finish (and official opposition status), and reduced the separatist Bloc to a four-seat rump. Ignatieff and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe both lost their seats; both have since resigned as party leaders.

Serenely above the fray, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a nerdy economist whose political views and hardball tactics draw heavily on the U.S. Republican right, achieved the majority that had twice eluded him. In the months running up to the election, Harper's Conservatives spent a reported $12 million on incessant U.S.-style TV attack ads vilifying Ignatieff.

The outcome has left Canadian politics with a right-wing party firmly in control, an invigorated left-wing party savoring historic gains, and a vanishing center in demoralized disarray. Quite a feat for a country that prides itself on moderation and upholding a social democratic example for its neighbors to the south.

Even with a minority, Harper had consolidated power in the Prime Minister's office to an unprecedented degree, keeping cabinet ministers on a short leash and tightly limiting media access to government. He fired independent watchdogs who questioned budget estimates, warned of an unsafe nuclear reactor, complained of shabby treatment of veterans, or investigated police misconduct. When a career diplomat testified before a Commons committee that Canada had ignored abuse of prisoners its soldiers captured in Afghanistan, Harper's ministers flayed the civil servant as a patsy for the Taliban. These shenanigans culminated in a vote of censure against the government, a first for any Commonwealth country, but dismissed by Harper as mere partisan bickering.

The record has many wondering just how far the Prime Minister will press various right-wing nostrums he has espoused over the years. Harper campaigned on the need a for a stable majority that could lower taxes, control the deficit, and pass an omnibus crime bill featuring mandatory sentencing and accelerated prison construction. He highlighted Canada's recent economic record, the best in the G-8, although some attribute this to stringent bank regulations and a budget surplus, both inherited from the last Liberal government.

It's a safe bet that development of the grotesquely polluting Alberta Tar Sands will proceed unimpeded by any pesky environmental bureaucrats over the next four years, and Planned Parenthood will not see federal financial support for its birth control clinics restored any time soon. Taxpayer financing of election campaigns, a great democratic leveler, are headed for the scrapheap.

Harper vowed Tuesday not to "surprise" Canadians with policy initiatives not mentioned in his platform. The most sensitive topic is Canada's single-payer public health care system, treasured by voters but scorned by Harper's ideological allies. The test will come when the re-elected government has to re-open discussions with the provinces about the formula for funding that budget gobbling program.

The most serious check on Harper's power may be the NDP's astounding success in Quebec, where the Conservatives won only six seats, the separatists only four. In supporting the NDP Monday, Quebec voters placed their faith in a federalist party to a degree not seen in a generation. They will have a second kick at the can next year when the unpopular government of Premier Jean Charest must call an election and face the separatist Parti Quebecois, currently well ahead in the polls.

That makes the NDP, whose jaunty leader Jack Layton struck a chord with Quebeckers, the federalist voice in the province that is Canada's most liberal on social issues. National unity is often called the third rail of Canadian politics, and Harper, no fool, knows he will court political infamy if he does anything to impair Layton's ability to make the case for Canada in Quebec.