The Set-up

A fat Albertan, a screechy liberal, and a socialist with a mustache walk out of the House of Commons. Although this sounds like the set-up for a bad joke, it’s the start of the next Canadian election.

In a sudden move, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to dissolve parliament on September 7. This set the political gears in motion for an October 14 election, Canada’s third in four years. If you’re confused, don’t panic—The Varsity explains the rules of the game below.

The History

In typical, polite Canadian fashion, our modern system of government was set in place by the British North America Act of 1867. Crafted in cooperation with the UK government, it is no surprise that our system borrows heavily from their political model. Known as a Westminster system of governance, Canadian government consists of an upper house (the non-elected members of the Senate) and a lower house (the familiar, democratically-elected House of Commons, where MPs can occasionally be seen calling each other names on the nightly news).

The Pieces

The House of Commons is made up of 308 Members of Parliament, each representing an area of Canada. These regions, known as ridings, are divided proportionally among the provinces and territories according to population. For this reason, Ontario has the most seats in parliament with 106, and the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut have one seat each. When a citizen votes, he or she should be voting in the riding that they officially reside in.

The Rules

From the battle of Ypres to the more recent World Hockey Championships, Canada has proven itself to be a nation of team players. Appropriately enough, our country employs a plurality voting system (after all, there is no “I” in “democracy”!) Rather than vote directly for a leader, as in the American system, citizens cast their ballots for party members in their riding. The candidate who receives the most votes in a riding—regardless of whether or not they receive the majority—wins that riding. This system of voting is known as a first-past-the-post system (because the number of votes needed to win can vary widely, some deem it “further-past-the-post”), and is used in some form in 43 of the 191 countries in the United Nations. Many criticize the system as being unfair, as a candidate could theoretically win a riding with a very small portion of the popular vote.

The elected official becomes the Member of Parliament (MP) for that riding, directly representing his or her constituents in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is the leader of the political party that gets the most seats in the general election. In order to vote, one must be at least 18 years of age and a Canadian citizen.

There are several differences between the American system and ours. Namely, we vote for a party rather than directly for our Prime Minister (he is the leader of the party that wins), there are no Vice Presidents, and our version of the electoral college (ridings) is much, much less confusing.

The Scenario

In these types of parliaments, a closely contested election raises the possibility of a minority government. This occurs when no party has a majority of the seats—fewer than 155—in the House of Commons. Two things can happen: the party with the most seats can pass legislation by striking deals with opposing parties, or it can form a coalition government by official agreement with another party (provided they have a combined majority of seats in the house). Harper, who currently leads a Conservative minority government, cited his party’s inability to push through legislation as the reason for calling this election. Minority governments tend to be less stable than majorities, lasting only one year and four months on average.

The Current Situation

In a matter of a few days, polls went from predicting another Conservative minority government to suggesting a majority win may be likely. Perhaps goaded by the onslaught of aggressive Conservative attack ads flooding the airwaves—and the seemingly unready Liberal party still in debt from the last election—Canadians do not seem to see Dion’s party as a viable alternative. With the left-of-centre vote split between the Liberals, NDP, and surging Green Party, it seems likely that the prediction of a Conservative majority will come true in the short 30-day campaign that is set to unfold.