Electoral Behaviour

Not infrequently, elections in Canada produce results that surprise. A volatile and unforgiving electorate can quickly humble parties and politicians that take its support for granted. The 1993 federal election is one such example of a sudden and dramatic reversal of political fortunes. The then governing PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVES were reduced to a mere 2 parliamentary seats by an electorate that had swung sharply against them. In the 1997 election, the LIBERAL government headed by Jean CHRÉTIEN appeared well positioned to coast to an easy re-election victory. But the party saw its support drop sharply during the final weeks of the campaign. In the end, the Liberals won a narrow majority of the parliamentary seats but obtained only 38% of the total popular vote. Only 67% of eligible voters participated in the 1997 federal election, one of the lowest turnouts of voters in a federal election in recent years.

Such patterns of behaviour are indicative both of the dissatisfaction which many Canadians have felt toward governments and of their unwillingness to give their unqualified support to any political party or leader. Similar tendencies have been noted in provincial politics, particularly evidenced by the defeat of the Liberal government of Daniel JOHNSON in Québec in 1994 or the NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY government of Bob RAE in Ontario (1990-95). At all levels, electoral behaviour in Canada today is demonstrative of the Canadian electorate's capacity for sudden and sometimes dramatic political change and of their willingness to oust any government with which they have become disenchanted.

The ties of most Canadians to political parties, federal or provincial, are not as strong or durable as they have historically tended to be in European countries, where the parties sometimes reflect strong social-class identities or religious feelings, or deep ideological divisions. There have, however, been a number of regional and ethnic patterns in Canadian politics which have sometimes persisted over several elections. Until the REFORM PARTY won a majority of the seats there in 1993, the Conservatives had been consistently strong in Western Canada. And the Liberals under Pierre TRUDEAU had enjoyed strong support in Québec until this pattern was reversed, first by the Conservatives led by Brian MULRONEY in 1984 and subsequently by the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS in 1993.

But voting behaviour in Canada has generally been affected more by short-term political trends than by long-term patterns. Among such factors would be included feelings about individual political leaders, the state of the ECONOMY, and particular areas of public policy, such as the FREE TRADE issue in the 1988 election, or UNEMPLOYMENT and the deficit in 1993 and 1997. Such factors are difficult to predict from one election to the next, and can vary a great deal in their importance to different groups or different regions of the country. The record of the governing party in office is also important. Both John TURNER in 1984 and Kim CAMPBELL in 1993, who each served as PRIME MINISTER only a few months, were affected by some of the unpopular policies and negative public images of their predecessors. The Liberals in the 1997 election campaign stressed their record of fiscal management, but Canada's persistently high rate of unemployment provided opportunities to opposing parties who were more critical of the overall record of the Liberal government in its handling of economic problems.

The dramatic changes in the political landscape which Canadian voters brought about in the 1993 election endured through 1997, but the potential for further change remains high. While the Conservatives recovered somewhat from their disastrous 1993 result, the party's gains in 1997 were very modest ones indeed. The Conservatives clearly failed to recapture any substantial part of the wider electoral base on which they had surged to power under Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988. Similarly, the NDP, although it achieved an unprecedented breakthrough in the Atlantic region and reclaimed a few of its traditional constituencies in the West in the 1997 federal election, failed to recapture its former strength in urban Ontario.

Both of the 2 new parties which had gained representation in the 1993 election, Reform and the Bloc Québécois, had reason to be disappointed in their 1997 results. Although the Reform Party won enough seats to become the official opposition in PARLIAMENT, it failed to improve on the 19% of the vote which it had won in the 1993 election or to significantly extend its support among voters beyond Western Canada. The Bloc Québécois lost its status as the official opposition in Parliament, and its total vote in Québec declined sharply from the 49% which it won in 1993 to 38% in 1997, barely ahead of the Liberals' 36%. But the fact that both new parties retained substantial support among voters in 1997 indicates that there will continue to be considerable uncertainty regarding future patterns of electoral behaviour in Canada. While it is possible that some of the political changes of recent years could eventually solidify into more stable patterns, it is more likely that the capacity of Canadian voters for abrupt and sometimes dramatic change will continue to provide new challenges and opportunities for the political leaders of the future.