First-Past-the-Post for the Last Time?

On May 2, 2011, the Conservatives won a majority government (166 of 308 seats) with 39.6% of the popular vote.

On October 19, 2015, the Liberals won a majority government (184 of 338 seats) with 39.5% of the popular vote.

In the last two national elections, Canada has seen the same result: a political party winning 100% of the parliamentary power with a term ‘mandate’ from less than 40% of the ballots cast.

Three of the parties campaigning in the past race promised electoral reform. One of them, the Liberals, now have 184 seats in the House of Commons. When we head back to the federal polls in 2019, will the balance of power in Ottawa be determined again by only 39.5% of the active electorate?

Now that the Liberals have won the election, this, for me, is definitely one of the most interesting promises of the campaign:

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform. (Trudeau announces plan to kill first-past-the-post by the next election, A Fair and Open Government [Liberal Campaign Platform])

Think about it: it is not every day that a political party wins a first-past-the-post race with a promise of eradicating the first-past-the-post system itself. One can easily imagine many reasons why maintaining the status quo is in the interest of the party possessing a parliamentary majority at any given time. (Take a moment and consider this visualization to get an idea of how much proportional representation would have impacted the distribution of seats yesterday.)

Take it a step further: in what scenario would it serve a governing party to enact a reform that would, virtually by definition, drastically diminish its odds of achieving a majority again? And in what scenario would a ruling party do something likely to be a disservice to its inherent aim of maintaining power? In the standard model of politics, the equation seems incredibly difficult to imagine.

Even for reluctantly weary political realists like me, every now and again it is fun to venture to the thought, What if, just maybe, they actually keep this promise?

Let’s watch this one closely, Canada.

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