French voters dumped a controversial conservative president who imposed austerity (albeit a very modest dose) and elected a socialist to take his place last week. One year ago, many acknowledged the unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy, but few thought he was beatable. French Socialists were in disarray following the scandal that ruined the hopes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the presumed favourite to win the Socialist presidential nomination.
Then François Hollande, "Monsieur Normale," won the presidential nomination for the Socialists, and on May 6 Hollande defeated Sarkozy. Could the same thing happen in Canada?
Stephen Harper has been Canada's prime minister for six years, but five of those years he led minority governments in which the Conservatives held less than half of the seats in the House of Commons. On May 2, Harper completed his first year with a majority government. Without having to trim his sails to accommodate opposition parties, Harper has been able to introduce new austerity measures and advance a more conservative policy agenda.
Meanwhile, Canada's New Democratic Party -- the largest party in opposition and a proud member of the Socialist International -- has a new leader, Thomas Mulcair. One year ago, the NDP was led by former Toronto city councillor Jack Layton. Layton's death from cancer left the party without an effective champion in the House of Commons, and the other main opposition parties, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, also spent much of the year seeking new leaders, making it possible for the Conservatives to enjoy their first year with a majority government in easy dominance of the Canadian political landscape.
Now a new poll conducted for the Canadian Press news agency by Harris Decima shows the NDP pulling ahead of the Conservatives in the popular vote.
It is too early to predict the outcome of the next Canadian election, which isn't due until 2014. Still, Harper will have to be careful to avoid Sarkozy's fate. Anxiety over his budget austerity, a political scandal, or even the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November could lead Canadian voters to seek an alternative to his Conservative party.
Francophone Thomas Mulcair has a chance to hang on to the strong support the NDP gained from Quebec voters in the last election, when they elected NDP candidates to 58 of the province's 75 seats in the House of Commons -- where they comprise more than half of the NDP's 101 Members of Parliament.
In the unsettled global economy today, political assumptions everywhere are being revised. It is not impossible that Canada will follow France, choosing a socialist over a conservative to captain the ship of state -- in Canada's case, perhaps a canoe of state -- through rough seas ahead.