Strategy debates of Canadian political parties 2015 - 2017

Elections to the House of Commons (the lower house) in October 2015 brought about a political sea change in Canada. Led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper up until then, the Conservative Party failed to gain a renewed mandate to rule and had to make way for the Liberal Party, whose head, Justin Trudeau, took office as the new Prime Minister. The social-democratic NDP (New Democratic Party) was not able to maintain its status as the strongest opposition force and is now the third-largest party in Parliament. It is followed by the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and the Greens, which only saw marginal changes compared to previous elections and were not able to achieve official party status in the House of Commons.

In the wake of the elections, the parties have faced the task of positioning themselves in their new roles for the first half of the legislative period. In doing so, party strategists often face a whole host of often contradictory factors: what expectations do voters have of parties in the follow-up to the election? What political atmosphere will prevail in the country over the medium term? What topics will dominate the debate? With regards to what issues will electors attribute the skills and competence required to lead to their own party and party heads? What do the grass-root elements of the parties, the party wings, and mainstream supporters want?

In the phase of reorientation after an election, experts make important decisions, staking out the future political strategy of the respective parties. The following graph shows what strategy debates appear plausible and what strategic options there are. Three dimensions are visualised to this end: 1) the current party platform; 2) how a party's core supporters see the world and 3) current debates over the political direction to take.

These three dimensions are mapped onto political attitudes and values of left-to-right (on an economic scale) and libertarian-to-authoritarian (on a social scale). By the same token, the graph indicates that a free market and libertarian world view play a major role in Canada, particularly with respect to immigration and integration. Overall, then, the centre of gravity of both Canadian voters and the political party landscape is significantly further to the right and somewhat more libertarian than in Germany. The aim and objective here is to identify and underscore mutual dependencies between these three dimensions and explore the potential distortions that emanate from the tension between the basic strategic lay of the land, which has in many cases been stable for years, and the highly dynamic tactical positions of individual actors.

When one compares the three dimensions with the situation in Germany (see strategy debates in Germany), one must also keep in mind that while Canadian political parties already have significantly fewer "core" voters and, moreover, even this core exhibits greater mobility from one election to another. Major regional differences can also be identified within the individual parties. Finally, Canadian society is overall less politicised than is frequently the case in Europe.

From a social democratic perspective, it should furthermore be noted that the left-authoritarian quadrant has never had a strong following among Canadian voters, as there has never been any significant communist movement, nor highly ideological trade unions. Thus, over the course of time, the main polarisation has taken place between the Conservatives and the other four parties (which mostly overlap in various grey zones of the libertarian area).

Another factor that is to be considered is the political situation in Canada's big neighbour, the USA, particularly following the election of Donald Trump as new US President. It can be assumed that the NDP will position itself as a sharp critic of Trump, whereas the Liberals must act more along realpolitik lines. They will attempt to reach an accommodation with Trump. Less clear is the situation within the Conservatives, who are torn between a more moderate and a pro-Trump camp. It remains to be seen how this political sea change will impact the strategy debate among Canadian parties in concrete terms, but it will constitute an important factor in coming years.

In the following, the strategic situations of the five political parties in the Canadian Parliament are analysed individually and illustrated by graphs.

Individual Overview

Strategic Situation of the New Democrats

The loss of the 2015 elections is the second historical watershed in the 55-year history of the NDP as a party at the Federal level. After four years acting as the official opposition, Canada's social democratic party has slipped back to its accustomed third place in the political standings.

The Achilles' heel of the NDP has always been the poor reception in some provinces of its proposed social programmes (healthcare, childcare, redistribution financed by taxation, etc.), interpreted as too centralizing. This holds especially true in the province of Québec, where the NDP never managed to reap much more than between 5 and 10 per cent of the vote for decades. This changed briefly in the middle of the 1980s and then once again in 2011 in the guise of an astounding vague orange (followed by the appointment of a party chairman from Québec, Thomas Mulcair). Only during these two brief periods, the NDP emerged as a serious alternative to the two traditional governing parties on the federal level.

It is for this reason that it is so important that the NDP defended its continued solid position in the party spectrum in Québec, where it still holds 16 out of the province’s 78 seats. The upcoming primary election to select a new chairperson should thus be followed with interest in Québec. The different strategic orientations of the prospective candidates, however, are still relatively hazy.

A certain current in the party is urging for a return to a more leftist position, economically speaking. Inspired by the internal party successes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbin, this grouping is calling for a clearly defined position significantly further to the left (Leap Manifesto, taxation debate). Although no official candidates for party chairmanship have stepped forward, one or even several candidates heralding this orientation should be expected.

The predominant tendency of the party under its last two chairpersons, however, has been one of gradual convergence with the centre in terms of economic policy, accompanied by an ongoing modernisation and opening-up to ever more libertarian positions along the social axis. One can cite the warming to free-trade agreements like CETA and to balanced budgets as examples here.

It should at the same time be stressed that, with this move, the Federal party is merely mirroring its significantly more successful sister parties at the provincial level. Since the end of the 1980s, the NDP has namely been governing in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for 16 years, in British Columbia for 9, in Ontario for 5 and in Nova Scotia for 4 years. Candidates from the "government-oriented camp" can thus also be expected. A candidacy aiming at capturing voters who vacillate in their allegiance between the Greens and Liberals (sustainable development, green growth) might also be added to the list.

The future and the strategic thrust of the NDP is hence uncertain, even more so given that the need for fluent bilingualism (to safeguard the party's chances in Québec) further complicates the search for a suitable successor to Thomas Mulcair.

Strategic Situation of the Liberals

After its convincing electoral victory in 2015, which was based on an aggressive re-conquest of leftist-liberal and libertarian issues among supporters of the NDP and Greens, Canada's Liberal Party now faces one of its most important strategic decisions: should it really cement the recovery of large parts of the Northwest quadrant by implementing salient election promises (legalisation of cannabis, infrastructural investment funded by deficit spending, reform of the electoral law, etc.)? Or instead return to the spectrum of the electorate it conquered in the 1990s: economically more conservative, but socially more progressive voters.

The crucial factor here could be the new chairperson of the Conservatives. If authoritarian or even religious tendencies hold sway there (viz. a sort of tea party or "Trumpisation"), the Liberals may be largely unopposed in their quest to continue to soak up votes from both wings of the socially progressive sector. The situation would appear similar if the NDP decides on a volte face and heads off in a more leftist direction. If it takes a radical turn to the left (Leap Manifesto, taxation debate), or even returns to the southwest quadrant, the Liberal Party would have a truly enormous strategic playing field before it, which could portend a medium- or long-term dominance of the political scene. This holds even more true, given that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to be very popular and perceived both in Canada and abroad as a fresh face - and a cool breeze.

Strategic Situation of the Conservatives

Like the NDP, Canada's Conservative Party is in the midst of a primary to determine the next chairperson. All strategic directions find solid backing in an extraordinarily large field of fourteen candidates. However, the ultra-conservative and religious tendencies of the former reform party are fuelled more by lip-service and commitments to free votes in Parliament, i.e. not imposing a party line. This reflects the inexorable migration of even the Conservatives in the direction of the Northeast quadrant. It should be kept in mind that even gay marriage is now officially recognised by the Conservatives, that the Party officially rejects reopening a debate over abortion, and that the more libertarian views of the Supreme Court are also very rarely challenged head-on.

One notable exception is the court’s favourable ruling on wearing the niqab during naturalisation ceremonies. This "Niqab debate” was triggered by the Conservatives in 2015 for tactical reasons during the election, but lingers on as a more long-term strategic consideration. This debate is a Canadian manifestation of anti-Muslim sentiment, often harboured by those seen as "losers" in processes of modernisation and globalisation. This electorate thus resembles those who align with Pegida and the AFD in Germany. At stake are the so-purported excesses and aberrations of unimpeded Canadian multiculturalism.

It is furthermore worth noting that pure libertarian positions ("Mad Max", end of transfer payments in the health system, strengthening of the parliamentary party group vis-à-vis the government), i.e. a further shift towards the upper right quadrant, are also up for debate. This direction is being borne above all by younger members and a section of the Conservative Party in Québec and urban British Columbia (where religious-authoritarian views are met with rejection by most voters).

Strategic Situation of the Bloc Québécois

Just like its sister party at the provincial level, the Parti Québécois (PQ), the separatist Bloc Québécois (BQ) is mostly preoccupied with issues of identity politics, i.e. to what extent staunch opposition to multiculturalism (Niqab debate and Charter of values) should push the independence movement from its traditional environment (in the social democratic middle) towards the lower quadrants. At any rate, with the election of a new PQ chairperson in October 2016, the identity-authoritarian pole prevailed. It remains to be seen whether this strategic focus of its sister party will set the tone for the election of a new chairperson at the federal level (scheduled for late 2017 or early 2018). A move towards the economic left ("degrowth"), based on fundamental opposition to large projects in the resource sector (e.g. pipeline Energy East), and in order to apply pressure to the NDP in Québec, is also conceivable.

Strategic Situation of the Greens

Although the Green Party (in contrast to the Bloc Québécois), stands for election throughout Canada,  because of the majority voting system, it must be viewed mainly as a regional party that is primarily salient in the province of British Columbia. That is where it holds its only seat (that of party chairwoman Elizabeth May) and that is also where the Greens only other potential seats are located (vying for the same electorate as the Liberals and New Democrats there). Accordingly, regional topics (e.g. oil pipelines through BC and shipping of natural gas from the west coast), as well as libertarian positions on cannabis, prostitution, injection clinics and similar, stand at the forefront of its strategic positioning. The high-wire act in all this is to manage to retain the capability to win majorities in several constituencies despite its clearly leftist profile, i.e. not surrendering more mainstream Green topics like sustainable growth to the NDP and the Liberals.

Strategiedebatten Kanada

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