Whether the next government is a Conservative or a Liberal minority, chances are that historians will register this campaign as the most ideologically-driven in this country's modern history.
Beyond the strategies, tactics, pooping puffins, powder-blue sweaters or invisible Conservative candidates, this campaign has been marked by a confrontation between the Tories' neoconservative vision and the more centrist or left-of-centre policies of the Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party.
It is this specific context that allowed for Stéphane Dion's stunning political rehabilitation and for serious cracks to appear in what was thought to be Stephen Harper's invincible leadership armour. Given the steady decline in support for the Conservatives so far, I guess you could say that the neo-con chickens have come home to roost.
It started with the cuts to arts funding. The $45 million in cuts wasn't a huge amount per se, but they became a symbol of this government's mistrust of the progressive-minded artistic community. Quebec artists led the protest. Many so-called ordinary Quebecers agreed while the movement spread to other parts of Canada. Michel Rivard and Gordon Pinsent were on the same page. This is turn prompted women's groups and unions to express their opposition to Harper's values on social issues. On the environmental front, even renowned economists came out recently in favour of Dion's carbon tax while polls continued to show that a clear majority of voters were worried about a Tory majority.
Because those ideological battle lines had already been drawn, the Wall St. financial crisis served as the catalyst. In both leaders' debates, Harper had zero to offer whereas Dion pulled out his 30-day plan. The difference between their views on what role the government should play in the economy became instantly clear.
Voters don't need a Ph.D in economics or political philosophy to understand what was going on. Behind Harper's lack of empathy lies his own belief that markets are best when left to work things out - even doling out some real bargains on the stock market! His anti-interventionist stance left the field wide open for Dion. Ridiculed before by the Conservatives as the nerdy "Professor Dion," the crisis turned him into the leader who got what was actually happening out there.
Beyond Harper's leadership woes and Dion's resurgence, the underlying ideological narrative of this campaign has produced other surprising twists. After being prematurely buried by some analysts, the Bloc could get a strong majority of seats here. As I pointed out last week, it could even take a few Conservative seats in Quebec City. The surprise is that this has little to do with the sovereignty/federalism debate.
With the Parti Québécois's shelving of the referendum, sovereignty became a non-issue and the Bloc morphed into an ideological counterweight to Harper - to the point where even Margaret Atwood declared that if she lived in Quebec, she'd vote Bloc.
Another stunning twist was Gilles Duceppe's statement that he's now willing to forge alliances with Dion when it comes to Quebec's interests. Now, who thought they'd live long enough to hear a sovereignist leader say this about the father of the Clarity Act?
On the other hand, this ideological narrative confirmed how divided the non-conservative parties were at the onset and how united the neocons remain. But now, with a possible second Tory minority, or perhaps even a Liberal one, one of two things could happen.
Harper and his mentor, Tom Flanagan, could get their wish of seeing the non-conservative votes remain hopelessly fragmented among four parties. Or, with the sovereignty issue out of the way at this time, and without getting into a formal coalition, Dion, Duceppe, Jack Layton and Elizabeth May could cut some productive issue-by-issue deals in the next Parliament.
With a Liberal minority, this would weaken the right. But even with a Conservative one, a more collaborative spirit among these four would at least help in blocking Harper's ultimate ambition of turning conservatism into Canada's dominant political philosophy.
In other words, if there's no Conservative majority this time, this ideological narrative will be far from over.
Election campaign follows left-right ideological lines
The split could make it easier for the leftist parties to work together