How a Liberal ‘Red Wave’ Swept Canada Last Night

Not only did Justin Trudeau outflank the NDP on the left, but he positioned the Liberals as a lightning rod for anti-Harper sentiment.


A red wave swept Canada Monday night, propelling Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party to a parliamentary majority and ending the nine-year reign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party. And while the comeback victory caught many off guard, the Liberals’ return to dominance has as much to do with anti-Harper opinion as it does with a well-strategized campaign.

For much of the hard-fought 78-day election campaign, which was the longest in modern Canadian history, all three major political parties were in a statistical dead heat, according to various polls. Even a month before the election, the Liberals were trailing the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Conservatives, but Trudeau’s promises of change and vows to run a campaign based on “positive politics” galvanized voters and allowed his party to outflank the NDP on the political left and position himself as a lighting rod for anti-Harper sentiment across the spectrum.

“We beat fear with hope,” Trudeau said during his acceptance speech in Montreal, echoing the hope and change rhetoric that led U.S. President Barack Obama to victory in 2008. “We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together.”

Election night for the Liberals began in dramatic fashion, sweeping all of the seats in the Atlantic provinces and going on to take much of Quebec, major urban centers in Ontario, and even some seats in the Conservative stronghold of Alberta. The Liberals previously held only 34 out of 308 seats in parliament, but shot up to 184 out of 338 after Monday’s victory.

The polls hadn’t even closed across Canada when the country’s news organizations announced that the Liberals were set to win and that Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau who was prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and once again from 1980 to 1984, would follow in his father’s footsteps.

For many Canadians, the election became a referendum on Harper’s style of rule, which his critics have characterized as heavy-handed and often focused on issues important to only core Conservative supporters rather than the general population.

Shortly before Harper’s concession speech before a crowd in Calgary, the Conservative Party released a short statement saying that they would be seeking an interim leader in the coming days, though Harper has not formally announced his resignation. The Conservatives still won 99 seats in parliament, making them the official opposition party. But they are now on the outside looking in after nearly a decade in power.  

The Liberals clearly benefited from growing discontent with Harper. In the last elections in 2011, some parliamentary districts, referred to as ridings in Canada, were decided in the Conservatives’ favor by fewer than 1,000 votes. To avoid such a scenario this time around, many grassroots “strategic voting” campaigns sprang up across Canada, where nonaligned voters organized online how to pool and swap votes for the candidates that had the best chances to defeat Conservatives in key districts.

Canada has a British-style first-past-the-post system where the electorate only votes for members of parliament. In this system, a plurality of votes is translated into a majority, so the candidate who wins the largest number of votes in a riding wins the seat, even if they don’t receive the majority of the vote. In 2011, the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority with 39.6 percent of the national vote.

One such voting campaign, called “Vote Together,” aimed to take advantage of the system to draw votes away from the Conservatives. By Monday, the campaign had drawn more than 90,000 pledges to switch votes to beat Conservative nominees. “If we vote together, we can stop the riding-by-riding vote splitting that lets Harper win,” the website reads.

And while Trudeau managed to draw votes away from the political center, he also managed to cut into the NDP’s base on Canada’s political left. One of the biggest issues in the election was stewardship of the economy, which has stagnated largely because of slumping oil prices. Trudeau said he would spend on infrastructure projects and run modest budget deficits to stimulate the economy. Traditionally a middle of the road party, the position on deficit spending allowed the Liberals to outmaneuver the NDP and their leader Thomas Mulcair, who said they would balance the budget and pay for spending with taxes.

The strategy appeared to work. After Monday’s election, the NDP was relegated to Canada’s third party, losing many of the ridings in Quebec it had picked up in the previous election to the Liberals.

Now, as the Liberals finish celebrating their victory, the party will have to govern.

Trudeau has promised an ambitious agenda harkening back to the left-of-center policies of previous Liberal governments, including $46 billion ($60 billion CDN) in new infrastructure spending, reforming Canada’s electoral system, with an aim to adopt proportional representation, creating national targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and legalizing marijuana.

On foreign policy and security issues, the Liberals also signal change for Canada. Trudeau plans to end Canada’s combat mission fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and stick to training Iraqi troops instead. The new prime minister has also vowed to reform parts of Canada’s C-51 surveillance act, described by its critics as legislation similar to the Patriot Act, and end the country’s controversial involvement in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

Throughout the election campaign, Trudeau’s opponents have tried to use his age and inexperience against him. One Conservative ad that ran on T.V. and radio in Canada listed Trudeau’s track record and alleged shortcomings before ending with the tagline: “Just not ready.”

Now, after a stunning election victory, that slogan will finally get put to the test.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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