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The 2015 Canadian federal election, explained

There's a huge election happening as we speak, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Instead, it's America's neighbors to the north who are going to the polls today in a campaign that officially launched the week of the first Republican debate and is now over.

Topping the polls right now is Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, which is enjoying a stunning renaissance after a near-death experience that as recently as six weeks ago looked like it might be setting the party on a course for oblivion.

1) What is Canada?

Like so many of the world's other trouble spots, Canada is an artifact of British imperialism cobbled together without regard for geography, linguistics, or religion.

The product of a mid-19th-century merger between a couple of British colonies and some land conquered from France, Canada remains a land divided both regionally and linguistically. Slightly more than one-fifth of Canadians speak French as their mother tongue, and tend to align themselves politically with the more left-wing currents associated with France rather than the English-speaking world. Anglophone Canadians are themselves divided between the poor provinces of Atlantic Canada, the industrial and metropolitan core in Ontario, and the resource-intensive economy of the west.

Canada also contains a significant population of First Nations people, who are not quite as politically disenfranchised as their American counterparts, as well as the vast and largely empty spaces of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

But the current election, in many ways, marks the muting of ethnic and regional tensions that dominated Canadian politics from the mid-'80s to the early 21st century. Both Quebec separatism and western-specific grievance politics have vanished as forces in Canadian politics, giving way to a more straightforward left-right ideological conflict.

2) Who is running in this election?

There are three major parties contesting the election:

1) The Conservative Party of Canada has only existed in its current form since 2003, but has governed since 2006. Stephen Harper is the only CPC prime minister — indeed, the only CPC leader — in Canadian history, and he is running for yet another term. He's been in office for a long time, but his first couple of ministries were minority governments in which the Conservatives were the biggest party but couldn't pass bills without some support from one of the opposition parties. That necessity made it easier to bridge gaps between his party's more centrist and right wings, which hasn't been the case since they won a majority in 2011.

Harper is hurt by a Canadian economy that suffers from low global commodity prices, and by the inevitable staleness that comes from serving in office this long. He is helped by a badly divided opposition.

2) The New Democrat Party is the official opposition in the current Parliament and stands as an analog to the Labour Party in the UK or a social democratic party in continental Europe.

The New Democrats stand for left-wing politics and an alliance with labor unions. Traditionally, they've been a small third party — active in provincial politics in a handful of places but never in serious contention to lead the Canadian federal government. Their strategy for influencing policy has been to try to win some seats in Parliament and then hope that nobody has enough seats to hold an absolute majority. Under those circumstances, even a relatively small bloc of NDPers could push policy one way or the other.

This all changed in the 2011 election, which saw political support for the separatist Bloc Québécois vanish, suddenly leading to the election of a huge clutch of New Democrats from French-speaking districts ("ridings," as they are called in Canadian). That helped boost the NDP into an unprecedented second-place finish, which laid the foundation for the party to define itself as the real alternative to Harper — a quest in which it was successful early in the campaign but appears to have fallen short in October.

3) The Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been the dominant party of Canadian politics and features a wishy-washy center-left ideological positioning similar to that of the moderate wing of the US Democratic Party.

But the Liberals have also traditionally been the party of Canadian bilingualism and binationalism. It's the party that Quebecois who don't favor independence vote for, and the party that in English Canada stands for the principle that Francophone Canadians deserve recognition as a distinct and co-equal society within Canada. The high salience of regional and linguistic politics in the 1990s greatly advantaged the Liberals by fracturing non-Liberals into multiple parties — Jeffrey Simpson, an influential Canadian journalist, labeled this era a "friendly dictatorship" — but the unification of two different center-right parties into the Conservative Party of Canada and the rise of the NDP have left it squeezed in the middle.

3) What time is the Canadian election?

The Canadian federal election will be held on October 19, 2015. The 11-week span between the August 2 beginning of the campaign and the October 19 election is the longest in Canadian history.

4) Wait, 11 weeks is considered a long campaign?

Yes. In most democracies outside the United States of America, it is traditional to take long — years-long, in fact — breaks between election campaigns so that members of the legislature can focus on legislative work, government ministers can focus on governing, and opposition party leaders can work on their alternative program. Actual campaigns take place during bounded periods of time.

In Canada, the way it works is that while Parliament is sitting, there is no election. A campaign begins when the governor general (the largely ceremonial head of state who serves as the queen's representative in Canada) dissolves Parliament at the request of the prime minister. Dissolution of Parliament could be invoked as a response to some political crisis, but in the case of the 2015 Canadian federal election it was done in advance of a scheduled election. The campaign is going to be long because Prime Minister Stephen Harper dissolved Parliament well in advance of the scheduled election, a perfectly legal but somewhat norm-violating move.

5) This is a lot of Canada talk, where's my music break?

My personal favorite Canadian song is "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" by Stars, which deals with such Canadian themes as heartbreak, longing, and the struggle to pronounce the French word for "bridge."

Canada's music industry thrives in part due to protectionist regulations demanding that Canadian broadcast media dedicate a certain share of their time to "Canadian content" (what that means exactly is spelled out in complicated regulations), thus ensuring that Canadian artists always have a local toehold and aren't drowned out by Americans. This weird video mashing up a Drake song with videos of Canadian "heritage minutes" is arguably more archetypically Canadian than the Stars tune, since it involves both Drake and Inuit.

6) Why did Harper want such a long election?

Typically, a campaign would be short for one of two reasons. Either it is called in response to a crisis, so it has to be short, or else it's been called at what the prime minister thinks will be an advantageous moment, so he wants it to be short.

But in this case, Harper was going to have to run for reelection during a tough 2015 economic climate driven by global commodity prices, so there was no ideal timing. Meanwhile, a long campaign serves the interests of the Conservative Party because of the way the Canadian campaign finance system works.

Spending during an election season is restricted, but parties can spend more in longer campaigns than in short ones. Yet beyond legal restrictions, the parties are also limited by their ability to raise funds. The Conservatives have a much more robust fundraising capacity, and thus a long campaign with a high spending cap gives them an advantage. The Liberals and the NDP hoarded their resources to run ads in the closing weeks of the campaign. The Conservatives ruled the airwaves singlehandedly early on, but failed to really turn this to their advantage.

7) I'm not Canadian — should I care about this at all?

Tony Cohen

Well, I bothered to write this, so obviously I think you should.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Even though nobody talks about it, the US-Canada economic relationship is extremely important, and Canada — not China or Mexico — is our largest trading partner.
  • Stephen Harper's defeat would be a rebuke to Islamophobic campaign tactics.
  • Last but by no means least, if a Liberal minority government ends up depending on the NDP for support that could have negative consequences for both the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

8) Who are the main candidates for prime minister?

Stephen Harper watching soccer in Vancouver.

Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

The Conservatives are running the incumbent, Stephen Harper, who is also the only person to have ever been a Conservative Party of Canada candidate for prime minister. Throughout the 1990s, the Canadian right was divided between the more moderate Progressive Conservative Party and the more hard-right Reform (later Canadian Alliance) Party. Harper came up through the Reform ranks, but spearheaded a merger that involved moderating some of the party's stances.

'Midnight's Children' Premiere - Arrivals - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival

Pretty glamorous for a politician.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The Liberals are running Justin Trudeau, whom you may feel like you dimly remember from the 1970s, but you are actually thinking of his father, Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is charismatic by the standards of Canadian politics, and has a strong family legacy to trade on, but he's considered a bit of a lightweight. He's young, and unlike many of his other colleagues in the Liberal Party he didn't serve in the last Liberal Cabinet that preceded Harper's first government. On the other hand, he is a very good-looking man.


The NDP's leader is Tom Mulcair, who has a beard befitting the leader of a historically marginalized left-wing party. His predecessor and the architect of the NDP's surge to become Canada's No. 2 party was Jack Layton, who had a mustache. Layton died in the summer of 2011, shortly after his electoral triumph, and it initially appeared that his departure from the scene would throw the party into chaos. Mulcair, however, has emerged as one of Canada's most popular politicians. Unlike the vast majority of his NDP parliamentary colleagues, Mulcair also has some practical experience in government, having served as environment minister of Quebec.

9) Who is going to win?

I sure do not know. Fortunately, Canada has its own version of Nate Silver, Éric Grenier, whose website is called ThreeHundredEight rather than FiveThirtyEight because there were 308 ridings at the time he founded it. According to Grenier's poll aggregation, if the election were held today, the Liberals would win the popular vote comfortably.

Due to possible vote-splitting issues, however, it's at least possible that the Conservatives would end up with more seats. Similarly, while it's possible that the Liberals will obtain a majority of seats in Parliament it's much more likely that they will fall short.

There will probably be no majority party, the median member of Parliament will almost certainly be a Liberal, and the Liberals are likely to be the majority party in Parliament. That very likely means Prime Minister Trudeau, probably as the leader of a minority government but conceivably at the head of some kind of Liberal-NDP coalition.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated why a long campaign plays to the Conservatives' financial advantage.

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