The campaign’s final make-or-break weeks

Commentary, Tom Flanagan

The endgame of this long election campaign is coming into view.

Thomas Mulcair’s attempt to remake the New Democratic party as a moderate-centre party has failed, brought down by what Marxists call “internal contradictions.” His promise to balance the federal budget while not raising taxes (other than the corporate income tax) can’t be squared with all his spending promises.

Moreover, the NDP is essentially now a Quebec-based party, yet its leader, himself from Quebec, has adopted a policy on the niqab issue that is opposed by about 90 per cent of Quebeckers. Support for the NDP in Quebec has dropped dramatically in recent opinion polls, and the bleeding isn’t done yet. With less support in Quebec, the NDP becomes less plausible as a vehicle for defeating the Conservatives, thus giving the “change” crowd across Canada a reason to vote Liberal.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have been doing well. The lengthy campaign has helped Justin Trudeau by giving him time to travel across the country. People like him in person, and he generates great photos. Basically, the Liberals have now achieved their first campaign goal – to finish ahead of the NDP.

Even if the Liberals were to finish second to the Conservatives in number of seats, they might be able to mobilize NDP support to defeat a minority Tory government in the House of Commons, thus forming their own Liberal minority government. And with the decline of the NDP, the Liberals have a likely path to either first or second place by emphasizing that they are the only plausible vehicle of change.

The Conservatives began the campaign poorly but are now also succeeding. Initially, they were battered by external events – the Duffy trial, poor second-quarter economic numbers and, above all, the refugee crisis. Stephen Harper at first responded inadequately to the image of the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, but he recovered by expounding the Conservatives’ refugee plan. And external events are now helping Mr. Harper; the Tories are even with the Liberals in the latest Globe/CTV/Nanos tracking poll.

The Conservatives are doing well, but they need to do even better to claim an actual victory. According to the inexact science of seat projection, current support levels might give them a small plurality over the Liberals in the new, 338-seat House, but a small plurality would not last.

If the Conservatives were to win, say, 120 seats to 110 for the Liberals, Mr. Harper might remain Prime Minister for a while, but the Liberals would probably combine with the New Democrats to defeat him at the first opportunity. To use another Marxist term, such a “constellation of forces” would not favour the weakened Conservatives.

If, however, the Conservatives can win a strong plurality, say 150 seats against 100 for the Liberals, they might have a chance to survive. The Liberals and NDP combined would still have a majority of seats, but they would find it more difficult, politically, to overthrow a government that had just won a reasonably convincing victory.

And the Tories now have a path to that strong plurality, maybe even to a majority. The niqab issue is potentially incendiary everywhere in Canada. Opinion polls show strong majorities in every province, and in every party, against allowing facial veils to be worn in citizenship ceremonies. There is also strong support for stripping dual-nationality convicted terrorists of their Canadian citizenship.

The best hope for the Conservatives to counter the growing Liberal claim to be the vehicle of change is to grab these issues and push them hard. It may well come down, as many campaigns do, to Hunter S. Thompson’s immortal phrase of “fear and loathing” – loathing engendered by Mr. Harper against fear of jihadi terrorism.

This op ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on Monday, October 5, 2015: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-campaigns-final-make-or-break-weeks/article26638718/