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The Federal (Anti-) Election 2011 in Canada - Part 1 - Background

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The current Canadian election seems to be very confusing, even for Canadian, but even more for recent immigrants or people living outside Canada. For this reason, this series of articles is suppose to shed some light on this 2011 federal election in Canada from the perspective of a recent immigrant to Canada.

The Canadian election system is a system based on the Westminster Parliament in Great Britain. Each member of Parliament is voted for according to the first past the post system in a district (in Canada called riding).
This means each candidate is elected if they receive the most votes in their riding which does not needs to be more than 50%.

Currently, 4 parties have members of parliament, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democrat Party and the Bloc Quebecois. The first three party are called national parties since they have candidates in all Canadian provinces and territories, the Bloc Quebecois only runs in Quebec and actually promotes the separation of Quebec into an independent country.

At the time when the election was called, the government was in the hand of the Conservative Party in form of a minority government. This means, the Conservative Party had the most seats, but not enough to have a majority in Parliament. In Westminster Parliamentary systems minority governments are more common than in countries with proportional systems. This may be because of two reasons. At first, Parliament does not have a set time limit. Usually, by constitutional convention, the Prime Minister has the right to call an election at any time it is opportune for their government, as long as a maximum time period of is not exceeded (up to maximum 5 years). Due to the more flexible arrangements, it is not necessary to create a stable arrangement over the maximum period that would be allowed for Parliament to sit before being dissolved. The fixed-length terms in Continental Europe usually lead to coalitions between parties which together have a majority. Such coalitions are usually created with contracts for the whole term (however, these are not legally binding contracts as frequently such coalition can break up prematurely).

Secondly, the first past the post election system can create far more fluctuation in number of seats from one election to another than a proportional representation based democracy usually creates. Therefore, parties often hope that they can work together in an informal way based on a minority government and then make strategic decisions to have another election with a different outcome. In a minority government, the prime minister is not the only one who can decide when the Parliament is dissolved. Usually, in a Westminster style Democracy, the Parliament is also dissolved and elections called, when the government cannot maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. Since the opposition parties have the majority of seats in a minority government situation, they command the majority in Parliament. If the majority of members of Parliament vote against the government in a confidence carrying vote (usually a budget, the thrown speech, or a confidence motion either declared by the Prime Minister or the opposition), the Prime Minister usually requests Parliament to be dissolved and elections are called.

This happened in April 2011, and elections were called and set to be May 2nd, 2011. There are different opinions, what let to the vote that brought down the government. Canada had a number of consecutive minority governments. Since 2004, there have been 4 elections in 7 years, with 3 minority governments. The first minority government from 2004 - 2006 was held by the Liberal Party after having majority governments from 1993 - 2004 with pretty high majorities. The other two have been held by the Conservative Party. During the 2008 election campaign, it temporarily looked like the Conservative Party would be able to secure a majority of Parliament, bu even they won seats in comparison with the previous Parliament, they still fell 12 seats short. At the time the election was called by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. His reasoning was that he felt he was not able to find majorities for important legislation and he did not have enough support of his government by the Parliament. However, many pundits speculated that he hoped it was a good opportunity to win a majority.

After the election, the government announced some bills they intended to introduce that infuriated the opposition parties. On one hand, they wanted more stimulus measures to support the struggling Canadian economy (in the context of the world wide recession at the time. In fact the Canadian economy was far less affected than a lot of European countries and in particular the USA). On the other hand, the government wanted to repeal federal funding for parties in form of a certain amount of money they receive for each vote after an election.

The three opposition parties came together and signed an agreement to introduce a motion of confidence and ask the Governor General to instruct the leader of the second largest party (the Liberal Party) to form a different government in the same Parliament without elections. This is constitutionally possible in a Westminster democracy, and has historical precedent, especially when a government falls very shortly after an election.

However, in order to cross the ploy of the opposition parties, the Prime Minister went to the Governor General and requested a prorogation of Parliament. A prorogation means that the session of Parliament ends, and all parliamentary activities cease. All currently bills (except of private member bills) that have not received royal assent are deemed to have failed, and need to go through all stages from the beginning again. However, Parliament is not dissolved, but will return after the prorogation ends with the same members as before. Prorogation was very common in history, especially in the times when the government was run by the Monarch in England. In fact, theoretically, Parliament must only sit one day a year. However, in modern times this is less common, and hence pundits were talking about a constitutional crisis and the two blocks were blaming each other for it. The government blamed the opposition creating the crisis by trying to stage a coup d'etat, while the opposition called the prorogation unconstitutional and disrespecting the supremacy of Parliament.

After the prorogation ended after less than 2 month, the government added more stimulus to its budget and did not introduce a bill repealing the party funding and did not lose the confidence of Parliament at the time.

Read more about the situation that lead to the dissolution of Parliament and the current election in part 2
Read more about the personalities and issues of this election in part 3