Canada’s once-dominant Liberals are searching for a political message and a leader to deliver it, as Michael Ignatieff stepped down as party head yesterday after taking them to their worst electoral defeat.
Ignatieff, 63, said he hopes to return to teaching after losing even his own district in yesterday’s national election, in which Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals will choose an interim leader to head a party that has lost support in the last three votes.
“There isn’t a lot of hope the Liberal Party can ever win a majority again” without a “radical” step like a merger with another party “or a leader that will turn a lot of heads,” said Andrea Perella, director of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy in Waterloo, Ontario.
Possible replacements for the former politics professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts include ex- Ontario Premier Bob Rae; Justin Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau; one-time leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay, and New Brunswick lawmaker Dominic LeBlanc.
“Beyond the names is someone who could not just rebuild the organization but present a vision of what they represent,” Richard Nimijean, who teaches Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. “There’s no obvious individual that we can all name that would serve the role of that leader that can turn heads and upstage Harper.”
Trudeau and Leblanc have already cautioned against the idea that a simple change of leadership will be enough to restore Liberal popularity.
Lowest in History
The Liberals were reduced to 34 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons, down from the 77 in the 2008 election, according to preliminary Elections Canada figures. In the 2000 election, they held 172 of 301 seats. Their seat total and share of the vote -- 19 percent -- were the lowest since Canada was founded in 1867 for a party that had either won or finished second in all of Canada’s 41 general elections.
“The Liberals are in completely unknown territory,” said Nikita Nanos, an Ottawa-based pollster and president of Nanos Research. “They considered themselves Canada’s natural governing party: not anymore.”
The Conservatives won their first majority government with Harper as leader by winning 167 seats, while the New Democrats, led by Jack Layton, 60, surged past the Liberals to become the largest opposition party, with a record 102 seats.
With the reduced representation in the House of Commons come reduced opportunities to raise issues in the daily question period, making it harder for the Liberals to attract media attention. Harper, 52, has also pledged to eliminate a system of publicly funded financing of political parties, which could give the Conservatives an edge in fundraising.
“The Conservatives have a lot of positives; its fundraising machine” and its constituency associations, Perella said.
Ignatieff was handcuffed by a lack of money to counter pre- election Conservative advertisements that portrayed him as a foreign elitist who was “just visiting” Canada.
Ignatieff was running his first campaign since taking over in May 2009 from Stephane Dion, who led the party to its previous worst-ever showing and was the first Liberal leader in a century who didn’t become prime minister. Dion also had been the target of negative Conservative advertising.
‘Stop, Pause, Think’
“The Liberals really do have to stop, pause, think about where they are going to position themselves,”, said Kathy Brock, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. ‘ The Liberal Party hasn’t been a national party for some time,” she said. “It has to really show they can reach out to the west, care about their issues, reach out to Quebec.”
Harper’s Conservatives have spent the last few elections draining Liberal support in rural Canada, and among immigrant and religious groups in the Toronto area that had voted Liberal.
The Conservatives were also able to point to the recent economic record. Canada has the fastest growing economy with the lowest deficits among Group of Seven nations. The currency has been the strongest in the G-7 over the past two years. Government bonds have returned 5.5 percent over the past year as of May 3, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data, compared with a 2.9 percent average for the G-7. While banks elsewhere required bailouts to recover from the global credit crisis, Canada banks received no public money.
The nature of the election result may compound the rebuilding challenge for the Liberals, which Ignatieff described in his campaign speeches as a party of the center. The outcome “makes you wonder if we are moving more towards a two-party system with more polarization,” Brock said, “With a split like this, the left-center is always going to be out of office.”
Still, the Liberals have been able to recover before from major losses, Nimijean said. He cited policy conferences in the 1960s and the 1990s after Liberal defeats that crafted new policies and paved the way for future majorities.
“If there’s one silver lining in this we know there isn’t going to be an election for four years” so the Liberals can reorganize, Nimijean said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Quinn in Ottawa at firstname.lastname@example.org