Monday, October 15, 2007

Stephen Harper's Challenge

With election fever in the air, at least until next week when all of those pesky confidence motions are out of the way and Stephen Harper has been denied an election he desperately wants, for a second time in less than a year, I thought I would comment on some of the challenges he faces in the next election.

He will be fighting the election as the government: This may seem like a small thing but I believe that it is the most important challenge he will face. Being the governing party during an election sucks because everybody is out to knock you off of the mountain. Although, Jack Layton can be counted on to give him an easy ride I believe.

An opposition party has the freedom to do nothing but attack because they do not need to defend a record. Look at Stephen Harper during the last election. Many of his more explosive statements from the past surfaced during that election but they did not go anywhere because he was the leader of the opposition. No one really cared because they were focused on the actual record of the government. As the leader of the governing party he will be very busy defending his flanks from attacks from four different party leaders and in all likelihood his counterattacks will not be as effective as they were when he was the leader of the opposition.

In addition, I wonder how he is going to react to these attacks? Mr. Harper is famous for being thinned skin when he or his policies are criticized, tending to become petty and personal. Will he be able to keep himself under control during 36 days of constant and relentless attacks from his political rivals?

The Bloc Quebecois: Watching Mr. Harper it is quite obvious that he is trying to rebuild the old Mulroney coalition of Alberta, Quebec nationalists and Rural Ontario. The problem is the Bloc. The Bloc will be going after the same voters that the Conservatives will be in Quebec. In addition news of the Bloc's imminent demise is highly overstated. One thing about the last two polls that was missed was a resurgence of the Bloc in Quebec. Both showed the Liberals down but both also showed the Bloc with close to double digit leads over the Conservatives. Of the 75 seats in Quebec around 40 of them are dominated by separatists and Quebec Nationalists. If the current numbers hold in Quebec the Conservatives will be lucky to hang on to the seats they have and would probably only have a chance at picking up another 5 to 10 seats. Not enough to replace all of the seats he will probably lose in the Maritimes and Saskatchewan.

There is an opportunity for the Liberals in this dynamic. The other 35 seats in Quebec are dominated by Federalists or have very large federalist populations. If the Conservatives stick to the strategy of pursuing the nationalist vote they will be ceding much of that federalist vote to the Liberals. Sorry NDP supporters, Quebecers might vote for the NDP during by-elections but they vote for a party that at least has a chance to form the government during general elections. There is a possibility that the Conservatives and the Bloc could split the nationalist vote in many of these 35 ridings giving the Liberals an opportunity to secure the federalist vote and come up the middle.

Governments always lose support after their first election: That phenomenon was just demonstrated in the Ontario election. The McGuinty Liberals share of the popular vote in the election just past was two points lower than the 2003 election. Of course, it did not matter in this case because the Ontario Liberals were at a high enough level of popular support they could afford to lose a couple of points. Mr. Harper cannot.

It is extremely rare for a governing party to consistently grow its support beyond what it achieved in its first election. It may impress some people enough to vote for them but it usually pisses a larger number of people off in the process. So although the Conservatives are flirting with majority territory at the present time there will be inevitable erosion of that support over the course of an election campaign as the challenges of point number one above take their toll.

The Canadian electorate is in a bad mood: I have the feeling the electorate is not too impressed with any politician right now. In fact they are downright miffed at them. Such a situation tends to put the governing party at the disadvantage because, well, they are the governing party. One advantage of being the government is you get to take credit for when things go well but one disadvantage is you cannot escape blame for all of the real or perceived errors, slights, injustices, etc. that some of the electorate may feel is being visited upon them, no matter how much that government tries to shift that blame elsewhere.

Recent events would seem to suggest that the Conservatives would have the advantage if an election were held in the very near future. However, it would, by no means, be a cakewalk and there is a real danger that that advantage could evaporate in an eye blink if they are unable to overcome the challenges I have outlined in this post.

In a day or two I will create a similar post outlining what I find will be the challenges facing Stephane Dion. Yes, some of them will be obvious but others not so much.

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