Guest post written by TIME’s Megan Gibson
In a year when myriad governments have had their authority challenged, add one more to the list. We’ve seen Libya and Syria’s regimes reel in the face of mass uprisings, and Tunisia and Egypt’s leaders depart. And now… Canada?
Though not quite as tumultuous as events in the Middle East, Friday’s no-confidence vote against the Conservative government was historically unprecedented, as opposition parties charged Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government of being in “contempt” of parliament. The 156-145 vote, which effectively dissolved parliament, had been anticipated for a while as a growing chorus of critics—not least Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff—railed against the scandal-plagued Harper government. The most recent (and notable) grievance allegedly committed came up March 21 after a parliamentary committee accused Harper’s government of drastically underreporting the cost of fighter jets Ottawa was planning to purchase—for Harper, it was the jet plane that broke the camel’s back.
The no-confidence vote means that Canadians will be heading to the polls for a national election, now slated for May 2. It’s already apparent which issues each party is going to focus on in the campaign. Harper seems set on harping on the economy, an issue that has worked for him in the past. As the leader of the Conservatives, Harper has been P.M. since 2006, winning on a platform that promised lower taxes and a greater decentralization of political power in the country. He’s already voiced his displeasure that Canadians are facing the toll of an “unnecessary” election, which by some estimates could cost up to $300 million.
For his part, in his first national election as party leader, Ignatieff has cast his anticipated campaign in an ethical, moral light. Known mostly for his work as a prominent historian and writer in a glittering intellectual career spent largely overseas, he only entered Canadian politics in 2006. Ignatieff became leader of the once dominant Liberal Party in 2008, but has had difficulty winning over some Canadians who still warily view him as an outsider. He’ll now likely grandstand on social issues such as health care and education, placing the compassion of his social-democratic politics in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ perceived corruption. “We want to form an alternative to the Harper government that respects democracy, that respects our institutions, that respects Canadian citizens,” he said, shortly after the vote on Friday.
But while the collapse of the government may seem like a reason for the opposition parties to celebrate, Ignatieff’ may struggle to make headway with voters.
True, the Conservatives popularity has been dipping (a recent poll revealed that 41% of Canadians reportedly said they trusted Harper’s government less than they did a year ago) and even in the last election (called at a time when the Conservatives were polling favorably) Harper’s party only managed to win enough seats to form a minority government.
Yet the Liberals, the only party that could feasibly win enough votes to take power, haven’t been polling particularly well either. Another poll showed that Liberals only had 24% support of Canadians, compared to the significant 43% support the Conservatives had. What’s more, the Conservatives would only need to gain a paltry 12 seats in this election to form a majority government—which Harper is clearly gunning for. Whereas the Liberals, who’ve already ruled out forming a coalition government with the smaller New Democratic Party or the divisive Bloc Quebecois, would have to pull off a major upset in order to gain the amount of seats required to form even a minority government.
Which, though extremely challenging, isn’t necessarily impossible. In the wake of the no-confidence vote, trust in Harper and his Conservatives could dip even further. If there ever was a time for Ignatieff to seize the political moment, it would definitely be now.