National Journal

There is a very important election happening in North America right now. It's in Canada.

In just over eight weeks, Canadians will either reelect Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his fourth term, or elect one of two more liberal party leaders.

It's easy for U.S. political observers to assume that the 2016 presidential election is the only race to watch, but there are interesting and more timely political stories happening beyond our borders. Instead of trying to draw blood from the stone that is political news in late August of an off-election year, why not look to our neighbors to the north who actually have some political news worth covering?

Below is a case for political reporters to expand their horizons and pay attention to something other than Trumpmania. But first, a quick primer on Canadian electoral politics.

Canada's political system at a glance:

Canada is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the political party (or coalition of parties) with the most representation in Parliament gets to pick the country's leader, rather than that being directly decided on by voters. Canadians elect members of Parliament's House of Commons from a variety of political parties, with one or two parties holding a plurality. The leader of the majority party, if there is one, becomes prime minister. The prime minister in turn recommends members of the Senate, which the governor general (the largely ceremonial head of state) then approves. In Canada, the general-election season officially begins only when the prime minister asks the governor general to dissolve Parliament.

Since former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ended his three consecutive terms in 2003, Canada's Liberal Party has lost its dominant place in the country's politics. Now, Harper is attempting to re-create Chrétien's record of political success, albeit on a more conservative platform.

Meet the candidates:

Stephen Harper, Conservative Party of Canada: Under Harper's leadership, the CPC has transformed from a minority party to the majority party. Since he was elected prime minister in 2006, he has dismissed social conservatives and moved his party more toward the center. Still, after nine years in office, his politics have left many Canadians nonplussed. As The Walrus's Ron Graham described Harper in 2013, "He is a head of government who doesn't trust government, a national leader who doesn't believe in national leadership, a man of the people who doesn't care for people."

Thomas Mulcair, New Democratic Party: The NDP, which is roughly analogous to the United Kingdom's Labour Party, has vacuumed up support from more antiestablishment, French-speaking Canadians. But Mulcair has had to answer for his past as a proponent of "anglophone rights," and for his past ambitions to become a senior adviser to Harper as a Conservative. Now, francophone Quebec—Canada's second-most-populous province—will be central to Mulcair's bid to unseat Harper. If elected, Mulcair would be the first prime minister from his party.

Justin Trudeau, Liberal Party of Canada: Confusingly, Canada's "Liberal" party is more centrist than the New Democratic Party. Trudeau—the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—seems to have some of the political intangibles that Harper and Mulcair lack, particularly in terms of charisma. He's made headlines, and conservative enemies, by defending abortion and by calling for the legalization of marijuana.

So, why should American political journalists train their attention on our neighbors to the north? For one, their election is actually happening this year:

Unlike the U.S. presidential election, which will take place in 445 days, the Canadian federal election is actually taking place somewhat soon: on Oct. 19, 2015.

Earlier this month, Harper dissolved Parliament, meaning that the formal Canadian election season is taking place over the course of 11 weeks. It's almost unfathomable to think of a U.S. presidential campaign starting that close to the date of the election, yet this election cycle will be one of the longest campaigns in Canadian history. By comparison, four of the past five election seasons were just five weeks long.

Reporters and other political observers might conserve their sanity by focusing on an election that is actually somewhat predictable at this point in time. It's a lot easier to predict what might happen in eight weeks than in 63 weeks. Polling this far out from the U.S. election is notoriously unreliable. After all, Rudy Giuliani was leading the Republican field at this point in the 2008 presidential cycle.

A study in contrasts:

Along with being the longest, this election is also poised to be the most expensive in Canadian history. One outlet estimated that parties could spend upward of $50 million on this election, despite campaign-spending caps imposed in 2011. That's because Harper recently raised the spending cap for candidates for each day the campaign season goes past 37 days. Coincidentally, Harper's party has raised more than other parties, meaning it will have more time and funds to plaster Canadian televisions with pro-Harper ads.

The Canadian election provides an insightful study in contrasts for American political observers. The first Canadian debate took place on the same night as the first GOP primary debate in Cleveland, and while the latter certainly featured more yelling, the former was arguably much more substantive, policy-wise. Sure, it plays into the stereotype of the hot-blooded Yanks versus the mild-mannered Canucks, but some stereotypes exist for a reason.

Canadian politics affect U.S. politics:

The most obvious example here is the Keystone pipeline, which Mulcair's New Democratic Party opposes. If Mulcair wins—and his party is slightly widening its lead ahead of Harper's party—that throws a wrench in U.S. proponents' plans for the pipeline. While it would be a frustrating outcome for Republicans, it would be a big relief to Hillary Clinton, who has refused to come down for or against the project.

While all three parties have been polling closely, the NDP has been leading the pack, and recently gained traction in one of Canada's largest provinces. In Alberta, the so-called "Texas of the north," the NDP unseated the Progressive Conservative Party for the first time in 43 years, winning a majority of the province's legislative seats in May.

Canada also carries outsized influence on U.S. trade policy, as it is the United States's largest partner in trade. And as the Obama administration struggles to cobble together support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal by mid-September, Canada's support is becoming more and more crucial. Last month, trade negotiations were temporarily held up by Canadian dairy interests. More recently, officials from the Canadian and Mexican auto sectors have been putting pressure on the U.S. to clarify tariffs on auto parts.

Canadian politicians can have scandals, too:

There's also an interesting political scandal unfolding that is intertwined with the Canadian federal election. It started last July, when Mike Duffy, a Conservative senator, was charged with 31 counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust over some shady spending.

The charges center on a claim that Nigel Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, covered $90,000 in "questionable expenses" racked up by Duffy, while Duffy claimed at the time that he had repaid the expenses himself. The charges have led opposition leaders to implicate Harper himself in the trial, while on the campaign trail Harper has insisted that he knew nothing about the exchange between Wright and Duffy—a Canadian Bridgegate, if you will.

Look at this guy:

If none of this northern political intrigue piques your interest, just watch this bonkers campaign video made by Wyatt Scott, an independent candidate for Canada's Parliament. Admit it: You're a little more intrigued about Canadian politics than you were at the beginning of this article.

And if all else fails, maybe the best way to capture Americans' fascination would be for Canada to find its own out-of-left-field celebrity candidate like Donald Trump. Your move, Trebek.

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