POLITICS
09/23/2011 05:18 EDT | Updated 11/23/2011 05:12 EST

NDP May Hold Balance Of Power In Ontario

CP

In the next Ontario legislature, the New Democrats could very well hold the balance of power.

With that comes both opportunity and risk for the party.

Most of the latest polls in the Ontario election campaign have suggested Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals are statistically tied. This plays into the Liberal leader’s hands, as the inefficient geographical distribution of the Tory vote will likely deliver fewer seats than the Grits, even if the Tories best them by a few percentage points.

As McGuinty and Hudak duke it out for top spot, Andrea Horwath’s NDP has been making gains at the expense of both her opponents. Sharing more in common with the governing Liberals, the NDP has drawn away some of McGuinty’s centre-left support. And despite his resilience in the polls, Dalton McGuinty remains a relatively unpopular premier.

And with Hudak hitting some false notes on the campaign trail, the alternative that he represented a few months ago is no longer as appealing, leaving the door open for Horwath to pick up support.

Though there is still a lot of campaigning to do, all of this points to the next Ontario government being formed by the Liberals – but with a minority of the legislature’s 107 seats.

If such a situation unfolds, the Liberals are most likely to find governing support in the NDP, which could take the form of anything from ad hoc, day-by-day support, to a more formal degree of co-operation. Adding fuel to the fire, Horwath recently praised the arrangement between the Liberals and New Democrats that made Liberal David Peterson premier in the minority legislature of 1985. She has since backed away from her comments, though without ruling out an alliance.

This kind of increase in the NDP’s influence at Queen’s Park could be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the New Democrats’ new stature would undoubtedly put it in a better position to challenge for victory in the next election. Though a minority government can fall at any time, the next provincial election would be scheduled for 2015.

On the other hand, the NDP would be tied to any failings of the Liberal government, which could set the stage for a Tory sweep in 2015.

But what this means for the federal NDP could be even more significant.

The next federal election is also scheduled for 2015, and the federal New Democrats will be looking to vault from the Official Opposition to government.

Though it is still early in the new Conservative majority, the federal NDP have been able to hold onto their support in the polls. They are still doing very well in Quebec and are actually running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in British Columbia.

With these two provinces in place, the New Democrats will need to win a swathe of seats in Ontario in order to oust the Conservatives.

This is what could make Andrea Horwath the key to the first federal NDP government. With a hand in a stable and effective Liberal term in Ontario, Horwath could erase the memories of the Bob Rae years and make the NDP a viable option in Ontario once again. With a strong base of support in Canada’s three largest provinces, the federal NDP would be well placed to challenge the Conservatives.

But if Ontario does elect a minority government on October 6 and the New Democrats find themselves supporting a third McGuinty mandate that turns sour, the hopes that the next leader of the New Democrats might be the next occupant of 24 Sussex Drive could be dashed.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.