Canadian Elections: A Primer

On November 27, voters will head to the polls in an election that will decide the future of a nation.

Revote in Florida? Don't cheer too soon. The vote in question is not for the American presidency, but instead that of our northerly neighbors. Canadian citizens will hit the polls, come Monday, to vote for their next prime minister.

Lest anyone worry that the indecisiveness of the American people might influence the minds of the people of the "fifty-first state," let me put those fears to rest. The Canadian electoral system is distinctly different from the American model. Canadians, in fact, only vote for their prime minister as a matter of speaking. Nowhere on their ballots will they find the names of the candidates for Canada's top-job. Instead, they will cast their votes for the candidate and party that they wish to represent their region, or riding, in the House of Commons--the Canadian legislature. The leader of the party that wins the greatest number of ridings will become Canada's next prime minister.


This system has several distint consequences. First, policy differences between parties are emphasized, while issues of leaders' personal character and charisma are subordinated. The result is a plethora of political parties whose positions range the political spectrum. Contrast this to the United States, where Vice President Al Gore '69 and Texas Gov. George W. Bush had to strain and sweat during the debates to find policy differences to distinguish between them.

In the current election, the main political parties are the Liberals--the ruling party, led by current Prime Minister Jean Chretien and leading in the polls with 44 percent of the decided vote; the Alliance, led by Stockwell Day, with 25 percent; the Bloc Quebecois, under Gilles Duceppe, with 10 percent; the Conservatives, guided by former Prime Minister Joe Clark, with 10 percent; and the New Democratic Party (NDP) with nine percent of popular support.

The Liberals and the Conservatives are the closest correlates to the American Democratic and Republican parties respectively. The NDP, led by Alexa McDonough, is Canada's socialist party--Nader's Green Party looks centrist in comparison.

The Alliance and Bloc Quebecois may be classified as regionalist parties. The Alliance is a new party; its full name is the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance. Its membership is drawn partially from what used to be the Reform Party--currently Canada's official opposition--and partially from disillusioned Conservatives. Like the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates Quebec's separation from Canada, its appeal is largely regional. West of Ontario, the Alliance shows healthy (for Day, at least; most Canadians, however, pale at the prospect) leads in the polls. East of the Manitoba-Ontario divide, responsible citizens balk at Stockwell "Doris" Day, insisting that anyone who announces his bid for Prime Minister in a wet suit, frankly, deserves to be washed up. (An example of grassroots democracy at its best: A petition has been circulating that calls for the government to officially change Stockwell's first name to Doris. Canadians have a refreshing sense of humor when it comes to their political scene.)

The main policy clashes in this election center around health care. Both Chretien and Day have shown troubling tendencies to buck the Canadian tradition of universal coverage. In 1995, Chretien cut back health care transfer payments to the Canadian provinces, effectively throwing the ball into the provinces' court for the insurance of universal health care security. This has opened the door to serious talk of privatizing health care services. In Alberta, Day's home province, for-profit clinics have been heralded as health care's future. Day himself is an enthusiastic proponent. Today, Chretien puts his support firmly behind government-funded health care. However, while his stance is laudable, he neglects to admit his role in forwarding the kind of two-tier health care system he criticizes Day for supporting.

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