On paper, all federal elections are created equal. Every voter gets one ballot. Each riding elects one MP. The leader of the party that can sustain Parliament's confidence gets to be the Prime Minister.
History is likely to regard the Canadian federal election of May 2, 2011 as an election that is a bit more equal than others. Three lasting consequences of this campaign have already been determined.
1. Selecting the Prime Minister is a National Ballot Question
In every election, there is a debate about whether voters choose based on leader, party, policy issues, or the local MP. Although the leader and party are usually the leading factors, in this campaign the options have melded into a single choice. Who will become the Prime Minister, and how that will happen in the context of a minority Parliament, has become the dominant campaign issue and most significant ballot question.
The issue has an added dimension in that for the first time in 20 years, Quebec (which has 25% of the seats) is participating in the same discussion. In previous elections, the question of sovereignty and how to get the best deal for Quebec has been the shaping issue. Last election, Newfoundlanders decided to engage in a similar voting tactic in protest of the federal deal on equalization payments. Essentially, these voters were saying, "It really doesn't matter who forms government; we only care about getting the best deal for ourselves."
The extent of this game-change will be determined by the results on Monday but, if the Bloc Quebecois declines as expected, and especially if that is combined with a Conservative government that will subsequently end the subsidy program for political parties, the pathway to achieving influence for your region in the foreseeable future will be by participating in the election of the Prime Minister and through provincial governments, rather than leveraging outsider status to get a better deal.
2. Coalition governments are now legitimate
The legitimacy of coalitions—or not—has been one of the central motifs of this campaign. The Conservatives have demonized the concept. Since the misguided photo op in 2008, which put the separatists at the same table as the opposition federalist parties, the coalition boogie-man has been seen as the most compelling argument to get the public to give the Conservatives a majority. The opposition's mishandling of the issue, from the photo op to running away from public protest rather than defending the concept (until last week, when Ignatieff's "straight talk" on CBC came across as a blunder, because he had so muddied the waters), has given the Conservatives the opening they needed in this campaign.
Whatever the results on Monday, the fact is that the public discussion regarding coalitions has transformed what always was a legal option into a much more viable political option. The can of worms has been opened and it is now only a matter of time before someone tries it.
If it happens soon, a few politicians will need to do some contortions to justify their position against what they said in this campaign. Like it or not, coalitions are now part of the Canadian political vocabulary and will be more realistically considered in the future than they ever have been in the past.
3. Parties will be realigned
Electing a Prime Minister who does not have the support of the majority of Canadians (which will happen regardless of who the Prime Minister is) grates on people. If the results end up similar to poll projections, it will especially grate Liberal, NDP, and Green voters who passionately dislike Stephen Harper and think Conservative values are out of touch with Canadian values. It will likely grate them so much that they are prepared to enter into conversations about working together, in new alignments of the sort that, to date, have been prevented by their dislike for each other.
This is not as straightforward as it may seem. Similar predictions were made in 1984 after the Liberal seat count was dramatically reduced and the NDP had a record showing. Nothing materialized then, in part because the right divided itself shortly thereafter, removing the urgency from the conversation Now that the right is reunited, the left will begin the messy process of reorganization. This will force many centrist voters over to the Conservative side and, consequently, will impact the future shape of the Conservative Party as much as whatever happens on the left.
Some elections simply provide us with our next government. I suspect that the results of this election will provide us with a bit more.