TORONTO — In the final hours before a historic vote anticipated as a shift toward conservatism, Canadians pondered the shape of their country, and many decided abruptly, as they cast their votes, to stick with the current social agenda, political analysts said.
Although angry with the governing Liberal Party for financial scandals and ready for a change, in the end these Canadians voted for the devil they knew over the devil they did not know.
Political analysts said the unexpected, though qualified, victory on Monday by the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Paul Martin was a result of fears that the Conservative Party had a hidden agenda. The analysts said the Liberals played up the Conservative agenda — and voters listened. Some voters, the analysts said, feared the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, would cut taxes, repeal same-sex marriage rights, abandon environmental treaties, change immigration policies and move the country closer to the United States.
“I’ve heard people say anecdotally, My mother went into a booth to vote Conservative and came out Liberal,’ ” said John Wright, senior vice president at the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. Wright said the election never rested in the hands of undecided voters, but with swing voters in the vote-rich province of Ontario who switched at the last minute.
“To put it in U.S. terms, a blue state’ country nearly flipped and became a red state’ country,” said John Duffy, a Liberal Party strategist, referring to the U.S. practice of identifying Democratic states as blue and Republican states as red on political maps. “This Conservative Party is an unusual one in Canadian historical terms and is much less small l’ liberal than any national party that has ever run before and come close to winning. It was a huge change that didn’t happen.”
When the votes were counted, the Liberals squeaked by with a minority government, winning 135 seats in Parliament, which now has 308 seats. The Conservatives, who were predicted to win more than 125 seats, won just 99, barely breaking out of their traditional strongholds in the West. The New Democratic Party won 19 seats, and the Bloc Quebecois won 54.
“If you accuse someone of having a secret agenda, there is no adequate response,” said Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, a public policy research organization in Calgary. “I think Harper had a tough time with that accusation. If I claim you have a hidden agenda and if you deny it, my response is of course you deny it because it is a hidden agenda. A hidden agenda can’t be disproved.”
Gibbins said another big issue in the campaign was a desire by many Canadians to stay as far as possible from policies similar to those of the United States. “George Bush played a far more important role in sharpening that debate about Canada-U.S. relations than Stephen Harper played,” Gibbins said. “We haven’t had an American president in a while that is as ill-perceived in Canada as President Bush. Canadians tend to be Democrats rather than Republicans.”
Liberal attack ads, showing photos of past Conservative leaders who cut social programs and education in Ontario, ran frequently on television and radio, with ominous voices warning Canadians, “Think Twice. Vote Once.”