If the Liberal Party wins a majority in the next parliamentary election, the leader of the party will become Prime Minister.
Ignatieff, who left his position as director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in December 2005 for a visiting professorship at the University of Toronto, lost a controversial bid for this same party leadership position in 2006.
That loss was credited mostly to the 27 years he spent outside the country, a decision believed to have caused many Canadians to view him as out of touch.
“There was a feeling he hadn’t paid his dues,” said Andrew Cohen, an associate professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University and a prominent Canadian journalist. “Canadians knew him as a writer, a scholar, a polemicist, but they did not know him.”
Cohen said Ignatieff’s image has improved since 2006, after two years spent as deputy leader of the party.
“He’s much better positioned this time,” said Cohen. “He’s been on the front bench—he’s been in Parliament for 3 years. He’s much more seasoned as a politician. Can he become prime minister? Sure.”
This time around, Ignatieff—who received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1974—thinks he is ready to lead.
“He feels he is the best man for the job,” said Jill A. Fairbrother, Ignatieff’s spokesperson. “He’s passionate about his party and his country. He’s done a lot of listening, and he feels he knows what the party needs at this point.”
Ignatieff is facing a much smaller field of opponents than he did two years ago. His main adversary is former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who also unsuccessfully sought leadership of the party in 2006. According to Cohen, the two are “lifelong friends.”
“[It’s] a Shakespearean rivalry, or the rivalry of a Greek tragedy—I’m not sure which,” said Cohen.
But recent events make this contest a very different race from the one in 2006.
In last month’s election, which resulted in the reelection of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Liberal Party saw their number of seats in Parliament reduced from 95 to 76.
Current Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion will step down as soon as a new leader is chosen, making him only the second Liberal Party leader in the Party’s history to fail to attain the office of Prime Minister.
“The prize has been diminished,” said Cohen. “The party is broke, it’s in opposition. [But] there is excitement around Ignatieff.”
According to Fairbrother, the campaign isn’t dwelling on past failures.
“I don’t think anybody’s looking backwards at this point, said Fairbrother. “We’ve got an important job to do in renewing the liberal party—everyone’s looking forwards.”