Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered this election knowing he held a major advantage: Canadians had yet to warm up to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
Of course, Ignatieff had to start by digging out from under an avalanche of pre-emptive negative ads funded by Harper’s party apparatus. Ads with scary music and sinister photos suggesting Ignatieff was some ivory-tower opportunist who was “just visiting” Canada after decades abroad in Britain and the US. And charges that Ignatieff would slink into a murky coalition dragging Canada into a nightmare where Quebec separatists would be calling the shots. (Be very afraid! Scenario A)
Michale Ignatieff campaigned in turn by by presenting Harper as a frightful neo-con bogyman, a dangerous autocrat – with the Liberals as the only plausible alternative for the many Canadians who mistrust a Harper majority. (Be even more afraid! Scenario B)
Meanwhile, the NDP’s Jack Layton was building his own theme. (Try hope! Scenario C)
Layton consistently stated he was running as a look-ahead Prime Minister…even though his party is more left-leaning than most Canadian voters, even though the NDP was given no real chance at victory and even though the 60-year-old grandfather began the election recuperating from treatment for prostate cancer and hip surgery.
Layton’s been busy leveraging his pluses. He’s shown dogged determination, populist appeal and the least reliance on fear tactics. He’s resonating with younger voters and Bloc voters in seat-rich Quebec. In marked contrast to the snippy cross-fire between Harper and Ignatieff, Layton usually comes across as, well, cheerful.
All of which has seemingly lifted his party into uncharted territory. At least one siginficant poll out this week places the NDP in second place, with the theoretical strength to become the official opposition in a Harper-lead Parliament.
Should Harper return at the head of yet another minority, the potential exists for Harper to lose a new confidence vote with Layton, in turn, being asked to form a coalition minority government and hence become the next Prime Minister. (A real “wow” of a shift.)
Harper and Ignatieff are now united in needing to douse Layton’s momentum. And you can bet fear will loom large in their protestations that Layton represents a disater to be avoided. And – make no mistake – if the idea of Layton running the country scares enough voters, Harper could get the majority he craves.
Brain Topp (who has worked with the Layton campaign) has nevertheless written what I consider a useful analysis of the NDP’s surge along with mistakes he argues Harper and Ignatieff have committed along the way.
But Terence Corcoran, commenting in the Financial Post, says fat chance. Cocoran asserts the NDP cannot capture capture Canadian moderates – indeed, many deeply fear letting the NDP run anything:
“Exactly how many Canadians actually want to turn over a major power role in Ottawa to one of the most off-the-wall grandstanding left-wingnuts of our time — an opportunistic word machine who couldn’t get himself elected mayor of Toronto when he tried two decades ago?”
Layton will stick to the high road, according to this Canadian Press report
“I’m not running for prime minister in order to attack other party leaders,” he said when asked about a recent barrage of Liberal attack ads targeting the NDP.
“I am running — and I’ve been in political life a long time — to attack the issues and the problems that people are facing.”
Apologies here for the marked lack of discussion on policy and issues. The reason for that is this election has mostly hinged on the question of trust: Which leader, which party do voters trust the most? Or (arguably) mistrust the least?
This heightened competition ought to enliven the campaign as candidates close in on election day, May 2nd.