As an election nerd one of my biggest thrills comes when a government falls from a motion of no confidence, as we saw today in Canada, where as expected, Paul Martin lost a vote in the Commons and will face a ballot at some point in mid-January. I took time during one of my classes to sketch out the basic alignment of the Commons and what we can expect from these polls:
The Liberals have a minority government but are the only party capable of winning seats everywhere in Canada. The NDP and Conservatives can't win in Quebec, and the Conservatives are weak in Ontario and the Maritimes. Of course, the NDP is pretty much third everywhere and therefore receives only scattered seats.
This means that the Liberals are the only party that even has potential to form a government, unless the Conservatives moderate themselves and wind up... well, essentially where the old Tories were, and enough to win a plurality in Ontario, which will not happen according to current polls. However, it appears unlikely that the Liberals will win much in the West, and they'll likely get hammered by the Bloc in Quebec. Many of the 21 ridings (of 75) the Liberals took in Quebec the last time around were lopsided, but in 6, the Bloc came within 5%.
So, what can happen? Well, the Conservatives can come up with a moderate platform and take enough Ontario and Maritime seats to take the government; but they'd need to improve immensely. They already hold 68 of 92 Western ridings; further improvement will have to come from Ontario where they won only 24 of 106 ridings with 31.5% of the vote (to 42% for the Liberals). Taking another 10 Western ridings and even half the Ontario ridings (53) puts the Conservatives up 39 seats, still only 137 seats, 18 short of a majority. And the Conservatives lack a potential coalition partner, even supply partner, in the Commons.
The essential problem is that Canada's FPP system has become regionalized, and individual parties are maintaining strong grips on each area. The Conservative success in loosening the Liberal hold on Ontario and the Maritimes has just meant that nobody can form a government; the Bloc is overrepresented thanks to FPP (17.5 percent of seats on 12.5 percent of the vote) but is not a potential coalition partner for anyone due to disagreements on the essence of the Canadian state.
What can the parties do about this? The Conservatives can become more moderate and try to appeal to Quebec voters; this will probably happen with time, but not by January. The Liberals can try many things: moving even further right, thereby opening space to the NDP (especially in the West) but perhaps recapturing some Conservative ridings in Ontario; moving back left, reducing NDP votes in marginal constituencies in the West and perhaps recapturing them from Conservatives, but at the same time perhaps losing ground in Ontario and other Western constituencies if the Conservatives present a more moderate platform; and finally, actually allying with the NDP to present only one center-left candidate in marginal Western constituencies.
Each strategy has its weak points, and an actual alliance with the NDP seems out of the question. In the end, the likely outcome of this election is exactly what we got out of the last election--a weak minority government. Anti-incumbent sentiment will continue to build against the Liberals, counterbalanced by those who want stable government and know only the Liberals have any chance of reaching a majority. Meanwhile, there might be more strategic voting, especially in three-party Western constituencies, where many ridings were lost to Conservatives by Liberal/NDP vote splitting (see B.C.: 22 of 36 ridings to the Conservatives with only 36% of the vote). If the center and left can win a few more seats, a formal Liberal/NDP coalition or at least somewhat more formal support arrangement might result.
When I have more time I'll discuss the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in Chile as the Concertacion will continue in office for another six years...
addendum: Number of Liberal seats in Ontario with 5% or less margin over Conservatives: 7 of 75