We’re told that a week is a long time in politics, so a lot can happen in the month or so of an election campaign. Just ask Bob Rae, whose 1990 majority victory left him as surprised as anybody. (Polls showed the Liberals cruising comfortably toward victory, but it didn’t work out that way.)
“In the last week, the numbers seemed to indicate that something was possible,” Ontario’s brand-new NDP premier-elect told reporters on election night in 1990. The party had only registered that victory was possible 10 days before the election.
Could Andrea Horwath‘s NDP do it again, perhaps as a minority? There are two ways it could plausibly happen:
1) The NDP could win a minority
PC leader Doug Ford is clearly in the lead at the moment, so the dynamics of the campaign would have to change for an NDP victory to become plausible.
Christo Aivalis, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, sees a couple of possibilities.
First, PC support could soften after something that Ford says or does sours voters. Voters who want a change of government could lose interest in him and look for it elsewhere.
“A Ford misstep right now would largely benefit Horwath,” he says.
“Will a series of gaffes catch up to his campaign? I think that would be kind of imperative for Andrea Horwath to move from the low 30s, where she is now, into that minority government territory.”
Some 80 per cent of Ontario voters tell pollsters they want change in this election. Ford can position himself as the change candidate, but then again so can Horwath.
An Ipsos poll showed that voters are much more open to the NDP as a second choice than to the other two parties: 30 per cent say they would support the NDP as a second choice, as opposed to 15 per cent for the Liberals and 13 per cent for the PCs.
“If 60 per cent plus of voters would consider voting for you, that’s very helpful in an election where the other two leaders are not particularly liked.”
Horwath might benefit from voters hostile to Ford settling on the NDP, if the Liberals look like they’re facing a crushing defeat.
“At some point, the broad swath of anyone-but-Conservative voters pick their horse, and they’ll get behind that horse. That could happen in this case, where if Horwath remained in second, they could jump to the NDP, leaving only the most ardent Liberals with Wynne.”
The NDP can potentially benefit from the populist energy that is affecting politics across the English-speaking world. Populism can benefit the right, as we saw with Donald Trump’s election, but it can break left as well.
“What that’s about is a general sense that the elite don’t share the concerns of regular hardworking Ontarians. That can be used by people like Ford, to rail at the downtown liberal elite, but that strategy could work just as well against Bay Street — just as well against big business and the insurance companies.”
A sign the momentum is shifting toward the NDP might be if it attracts hostility from its rivals, Aivalis says.
“One thing you might see is if the NDP is indicating it’s clearly in second and approaching first place, you might find it gets attacked more by the other two political parties.”
However, the most likely outcome is a PC minority government, Aivalis says.
Which brings us to:
2) A PC minority which falls early in its mandate, replaced by an NDP minority supported by the Liberals
Constitutional convention says that the party with the most seats is given the first chance to form a government after an election, (assuming the outgoing government, if they lose the election, chooses to resign instead of seeing if it can continue to govern.) Clarification added May 11.
If that party has a majority, they settle in for four years or so. (In Ontario, this would be until the election scheduled for June 2, 2022.)
If they don’t, things can quickly become more interesting, as Ontario premier Frank Miller found in 1985.
Miller, who at the time had been PC leader for only a few months, led his party to form a very weak minority government after the 1985 election. (The results, in a 125-seat legislature, were: PC: 52, Liberals: 48, NDP: 25.)
Miller formed a government, but it was rapidly defeated after Liberal opposition leader David Peterson signed a two-year agreement with the NDP, and the two opposition parties passed a motion of non-confidence 47 days after the election.
It is in these kinds of situations that lieutenant-governors, whose role is purely ceremonial during majority governments, get to make real decisions. John Black Aird, the lieutenant-governor of the day, broke with convention to issue a public statement explaining his decision to ask Peterson to form a government.
Miller quickly resigned as PC leader; Peterson went on to win a majority in the 1987 election.
If PC support softened before June 7, it’s possible to imagine a minority government led by Doug Ford facing an NDP opposition which, with Liberal support, would have the votes to defeat it on a confidence motion. The outcome could be much like 1985, but with the Liberals and NDP in reversed roles.
The Liberals, reduced from governing to third-party status — and possibly leaderless — would be in a thankless position. They would be forced either to let a party with which they compete for a pool of left-of-centre voters show that it can govern, or alternatively refuse to make a deal with the NDP — and be blamed for everything that Premier Ford then does.
University of Toronto political scientist Peter Loewen thinks that the Liberals might leave Ford in place and live with some unpopularity with their base, because of an existential fear of being replaced by the NDP. Several provinces have evolved a two-party system after the Liberals have become extinct, he points out.
“I suppose what they could do, if Ford wins a plurality, is allow Ford to govern, wait till they have a new leader and test it out for a while and decide whether they’ll pull the trigger on defeating Ford. They would wait for a while, because they would rather take that heat than give Horwath a chance to win.”
“What’s a bigger threat to the Liberals: having to wear it a little bit, under an interim leader, or give Horwath a chance to govern, with a lot of room to maneuver and a lot of runway? That’s really dangerous for them.”
Another wrinkle is the fact that Etobicoke North, Ford’s own riding, is by no means a sure thing for the PCs, raising the possibility of a PC minority with its leader outside the Legislature.
In every election since 2003, Liberal Shafiq Qaadri has won by more or less a 2:1 margin over his nearest rival.
It’s true that Ford’s family has a political base in that part of the city and that the Liberals are polling badly. Loewen says he would bet on Ford winning the seat, but cautioned that ” … he’s taking some risk there. You can get some pretty big swings, but it’s not a sure thing.”
“If he only wins a minority and loses his seat, I think the knives may be out for him.”