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Joshua Ostroff

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Party Down: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Two-Party System

Posted: 05/30/11 10:00 AM ET

When I handed my toddler Emile my completed ballot to gleefully stuff into the box a few weeks back, I had no reason to think our NDP vote would be anything but a throwaway.

For exactly half my life I'd voted for Canada's traditional third party, and always with the resigned belief that the best I could hope was that this principled runt of a party might act as the ruling government's conscience.

The unintended byproduct of an NDP vote, however, was that it helped their ideological opposites to victory. That is simply what third (or fourth and fifth) parties do. They are spoilers. They not only don't stand a chance at winning, but inevitably hand power to their political rivals. Even strategically voting for your least-worst candidate does little other than increase cynicism and decrease turnout.

This time around, the NDP moved one rung up the ladder to form the official Opposition. In doing so they split enough votes with the Liberals, who became the third-party spoiler, to award a minority of Canadians a majority Conservative government over the clearly voted wishes of 60 per cent of the population. The much-vaunted NDP surge single-handedly gave Stephen Harper his legislative stranglehold by helping him win 23 new seats despite increasing his popular vote by only two per cent.

Even in the U.S., the occasional third-party candidate causes supporters to vote against their own interests. Ralph Nader voters may have honestly believed there was no difference between "Gush and Bore" during the 2000 U.S. election, but his Green Party's futile campaign took just enough Democrat votes to get George W. elected.

In hindsight, it would be hard to argue that Nobel-winning enviro warrior Al Gore would have taken America down the same post-9/11 path as G-Dub, even if we assume the attacks would've happened under the watch of a president whose dad hadn't stationed U.S. troops in the Saudi Arabian holy land.

It happens to the right, too. Ross Perot's quixotic campaign boosted Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992 while the Reform Party's rise the following year reduced the then-ruling Progressive Conservatives to two seats, despite 16 per cent of the vote, handing majority power to the Liberals until the two right-wing parties finally merged.

Multi-party systems either keep third parties in perpetual third place, result in minority governments falling like dominos or create coalitions that give disproportionate influence to niche interests like Israel's tiny ultra-orthodox parties who hold the peace process hostage.

Prime Minister Harper, an admirer of all things American, also desires a two-party system because he thinks that he can win a battle of right vs. left -- or capitalism vs. socialism, as his ad writers will no doubt put it -- now that the NDP have supplanted the Liberals. But he's only guaranteed a win when his rivals are splitting the center-left vote. The benefit of a two-party system is that every few years, voters tend to give the other side a go.

When Harper's majority is sworn in next week, he will proceed to rule like he has a mandate. But he does not. Leaving aside his 39.6 per cent popular vote, the margin of
victory in the 14 most closely contested conservative races that produced this majority was about 6,200 votes. Combined.

A recent recount in Toronto's Etobicoke Centre riding saw conservative MP Ted Opitz squeak by with a 26-vote lead in our first past the post system, although the NDP candidate garnered about 7,700 votes.

There are solutions to the spoiler situation. Proportional representation would give smaller party votes electoral value rather than produce the opposite of the voter's intent. But moving beyond a winner-take-all system would first require the majority willingly give its power to small minorities. Ain't gonna happen.

The more likely scenario would see the Liberals absorbed into the NDP under the leadership of Jack Layton. Canadians, especially left-wingers, may be wary of adopting a U.S.-style two-party system -- but for all its faults at least we could go to the polls and actually get the government the majority voted for.

As the system stands now, when Emile is old enough to ask, I'll have to admit that this is not what democracy looks like.