If one believes the current political polls it looks very much that Canadians will wake up on the morning of October 20th with the likely probability of a minority government. Both the NDP and Grits have ruled out a coalition with the Tories and Trudeau seems to have shut off the possibility of a similar united front with Muclair, although he will probably reconsider the decision should the opportunity arrive.
Coalition governments are not always a hallmark of instability (although they often are – look at Italian politics). The British Conservatives for one joined together with the left-of-center Liberal Democrats to govern the country between 2011 and 2015 with a degree of moderate effectiveness. Stable coalitions have played a role in Japanese and Benelux politics as well.
However the problem though with a likely NDP-Liberal coalition is that the power share between the two parties weighs in at a roughly equal level compared to the traditional European coalitions where the centre of gravity is generally skewed toward one party (in Britain’s case the Conservatives).
Muclair is the better of the two with respect to leadership potential. He has a more definite understanding of economic issues and has so far acted with pragmatic intent (a cue taken from Tony Blair who masterminded Labour Party success in 1990s) but his party has three pillars that can fracture with ease. The Quebec caucus is his most powerful base but it is notoriously fickle, provincial and susceptible to splintering should the conditions change. The hard left vote will stick with him but it cannot deliver a government on its own and the BC caucus support can easily be drained by the other two parties. He will have to tread carefully to placate these groups whose interests don’t necessarily align.
Trudeau is a poor choice for PM based on tangible credentials. He has virtually no experience in any project of merit and comes across all too often as an intellectual lightweight. However he does carry a Canadian name built on mythical acclaim (rather than actual substance) and represents a party that in the view of many Canadians (especially immigrants) owns the default status on governing. He has national appeal but much of his support comes from a negative bloc that seems to detest Harper more than they really like Trudeau. Still he enjoys strong media support and in trying to be everything to everyone has built up a base that seems capable of rescuing the party from the doldrums of the Dion and Ignatieff eras.
Neither Muclair nor Trudeau is likely to play second fiddle in a coalition for too long and what will likely occur is that the one will bring down the other with a no-confidence vote (normally on a budget issue). We could therefore be back at the polls within two years or so.
So where does this leave Stephen Harper? With the Duffy scandal receding into the background and the boost of the great news of a budget surplus, Harper needs to keep his attack going on both opponents. He has remained firm on the migrant issue and should not cave into pressure from the opposition. A strong stance against the Niqab (which reflects the view of a majority of Canadians) issue may help drive voters from the NDP to both the Bloc and Tories in Quebec. He needs to keep pushing the obvious truism that both the Liberals and NDP will likely increase taxes. Vote splitting between the left and left-of-center candidates may help him in key ridings but there is no doubt that he is facing an uphill struggle.
The mood in the country seems to be for one of change and that does not bode well for him. Charisma is not his strong point and he is struggling to make inroads with young voters. However he needs to fight back with vigour. He has been a consistent champion of Democracy (and Western Civilization) on the international front and has called out many a dictatorship when he sees it. People need to know more of that.
As a Prime Minister he has governed over a stable Canada that all but cleaved into two following the mishandling of the Chretien Liberals of the Quebec crisis (during the Grit’s earlier tenure). He also should exploit the endorsements offered by Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberals (arguably one of the most fiscally irresponsible governments in Canadian provincial politics) for Trudeau. If he can weaken Liberal strength in Ontario he can pull back much needed votes for his party in a part of the country that appears to be Ground Zero for Battleground Ottawa.
Still its too close to call. Election results can surprise everyone. Cameron came back from the wilderness in 2015 to win in the UK as did Netanyahu in Israel.
Harper should not count on this. He still has time to steamroll Trudeau as a neophyte ill-equipped for the job and can force Muclair to make hard choices that will divide rather than unify his support base. The time is now. This campaign is far from over.