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7 insights into the surprising results from the Canadian election

- October 20, 2015
Canada’s Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau waves to supporters at a rally in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, we are pleased to present the following post-election report on the October Canadian federal election from political scientist Tyler Kustra, a PhD candidate at New York University.  His preelection report can be found here.

In a result that was beyond the dreams of his most fervent supporters only a few weeks ago, Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party of Canada to a resounding victory Monday evening. While the results will not be official for another several days, it appears that the Liberals won 184 of 338 seats, giving them a majority government. The governing Conservatives dropped to 99 seats, while the New Democratic Party took in 44.

[Need a refresher? Here’s what we were watching for the day the Canadians went to the polls.]

How does this compare to the last election?

The Liberals won only 34 seats in the previous election, their worst showing ever. That time they shed votes to the social democrats of the New Democratic Party, who were led by the personable Jack Layton. Previously known as the natural governing party of Canada, the Liberals lost the previous three elections and needed to improve their results or risk falling into irrelevance. They more than did so Monday night.

Personality goes a long way

The Liberals picked the handsome and charismatic Justin Trudeau as leader in 2013. Jack Layton died in 2011, and the combative Thomas Mulcair became NDP leader. The NDP came into this election leading the Conservatives and the Liberals, but efforts to soften Mulcair’s image backfired as he appeared sedated rather than subdued. Trudeau, on the other hand, came off as warm and friendly.

The Liberals took approximately 40 percent of the vote nationwide. Canada’s electoral system is based on the principle of “first past the post.” That means the candidate with the most votes in the riding (Canada’s term for electoral districts), even if it’s just a plurality, takes the seat. Since other parties split the vote in many districts, the Liberals took the majority of seats in the House of Commons.

[What was Harper thinking when he kicked off this election season?]

Trudeaumania 2.0

The last time the Liberal party held a seat in Calgary – the hub of Canada’s oil industry – was in 1968 when Justin’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, won his first general election as prime minister. The wave of support that the elder Trudeau rode was called Trudeaumania. A few hours ago, the Liberals claimed two seats in the city and the media christened the son’s support as the second coming of Trudeaumania.

La Belle Province

Since Pierre Trudeau patriated the constitution against the will of Quebec in 1982, the Liberals have never held the majority of seats in that province until last night. Benefiting from a decline in NDP support, Liberal candidates are now leading or elected in 40 of Quebec’s 78 ridings. That this was accomplished by the son of Pierre Trudeau makes the result even more amazing.

The separatist Bloc Quebecois, previously written off for dead, also benefited from the NDP decline, going from two seats to 10 seats.

The Tories

Stephen Harper has been prime minister for almost 10 years and has led his Conservative Party to three straight election victories. After the party came in second last night, he resigned as leader. Harper has discouraged party members from discussing his succession, so there is no heir apparent, but they will have four years in opposition to make their decision.

[How the economy shaped the Canadian elections]


The NDP came into the election thinking they could form a government but instead lost more than half their seats. There will be recriminations at NDP headquarters as supporters wonder how the party frittered away its first plausible chance to form a government. Nonetheless, in his concession speech last night, NDP party leader Mulcair did not resign.

Electoral reform

During the campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to change Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system within his first 18 months in office, arguing that the allocation of seats in the House does not reflect the allocation of votes. But this was before Trudeau won a majority government. Given that in the last 50 years only one government has been elected with more than 50 percent of the vote, it will be interesting to see whether  the Liberals reconsider how far they want to go in changing the system that has put them in charge.