And they are off!

Earlier today, the Prime Minister of Canada asked the Governor General to dissolve the 42nd Parliament and to hold a general election on October 21st. The campaign that unfolds over the next six weeks may go down in the history books as the most polarizing in recent memory. The stakes are high for all leaders. At the outset, there are a number of dynamics to watch for, as these could decide who ends up governing our country for the next four years.

1. What happens if no party can win a majority government?

Most opinion polls show the Liberals and Conservatives running very close in popular support, with a slight edge to the former. Given the way in which support for both parties break down regionally (the Liberals are strong in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, while the Conservatives dominate Western Canada), there is a reasonable chance that neither party will be able to win a majority of seats. This is where things get interesting.

If the Conservatives form a minority government, it could prove difficult for them to draw support from the other parties necessary to govern.  The Green Party favours halting all pipeline expansion and increasing the rate of the federal carbon tax. These are core policy positions that would be very difficult for a Conservative government to accept. For his part, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, has already stated that his party will not support a Conservative minority. That leaves the Liberals.

Steven Harper’s minority governments of 2006 – 2008 and 2008 – 2011 were kept in power because the Liberal Party was not financially capable of fighting early elections. In 2008 the NDP found a way to work with the Conservatives. However, today’s Liberal Party has a strong leader and is much more financially stable and would be unlikely to support a Scheer-led Conservative minority.

This means that unless the Conservatives can deliver on a majority of seats, they may not be able to form a government and to achieve the confidence of parliament.

It’s not all smooth sailing for the Liberals in a minority scenario either. Both the NDP and the Greens would likely demand that the Liberals embrace a move towards proportional representation. This will be a tough sell as a proportional representation system to electorally disadvantage the Liberals. Additionally, the Greens would likely demand a moratorium on pipeline construction and a hefty increase in the carbon tax in exchange for support.

The bottom line is that unless someone wins a majority government on October 21st, Canada could find itself in another general election again very soon.

2. Can NDP support rebound?

Some polls currently show NDP support in the single digits nationally. The last time the NDP polled so poorly was under the leadership of Audrey McLaughlin in 1993, when they lost official party status. If NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is to avoid a similar fate, he needs a near-flawless campaign. It is critical that Singh establishes himself as the true progressive alternative to Justin Trudeau, rather than his competitor Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party).

If he can coalesce disaffected progressives under his banner, then he may have a shot at coming out of this election with his leadership intact.

3. Will Canada see a Green wave?

Green Party support is at an all-time high with momentum coming off provincial electoral success in PEI and British Columbia in recent years. With Ontario Green Party leader, Mike Schreiner winning a seat in Guelph last year, the Greens now have representation in three provincial legislatures.

Nevertheless, the decks are stacked against the Greens hitting the necessary threshold to gain official party status (12 seats in Parliament). Green Party support historically peaks in the period right before federal elections.  As the hustle and bustle of a general election campaign gets underway, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Greens – with their more limited financial and organizational resources – to maintain media attention and put together sophisticated systems to ensure their supporters get to the polls. Candidates need a strong ground game to deliver votes.

If the NDP continue to struggle, the Green Party could draw support for voters looking for a progressive alternative to the scandal-plagued Liberals. As it stands, however, it is unlikely the Greens will be able to elect more than six members of parliament. This would still be a historic achievement for the once-fringe party.

4. Who benefits from an NDP collapse in Quebec?

NDP support looks set to collapse in Quebec with many observers predicting that the party may only hold onto a single seat in the province. This prospect has Liberal strategists salivating as they are counting on big gains in La Belle Province to offset expected losses in Western Canada. But, will all the undetermined NDP votes really land in the lap of the Liberals? Perhaps, but it is by no means a certainty.

There is a lot less overlap between the Liberal and NDP electorates in Quebec versus other provinces. This helps explain why controversy around female Muslim face veils (niqab) led to an erosion of NDP, but not Liberal, support in Quebec during the last election despite both parties having identical positions on the issue.  Many NDP voters are Quebec nationalists who may be more inclined to support a resurgent Bloc Quebecois or a People’s Party of Canada, rather than vote Liberal. If the Bloc or People’s Party can get a critical mass of past NDP voters, they may be able to gain enough seats to hold Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to a minority government. The irony here is that a Liberal minority government would almost certainly rely on NDP support to stay in power.

All in, the leaders’ campaign matters as does the individual candidate’s ability to mobilize voter support.