OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s grand old Liberal Party took such a drubbing in Monday’s election that some people are beginning to question whether it has a future on its own or should be folded into the leftist New Democratic Party.
The Liberals have governed Canada far more than their Conservative rivals but suffered the party’s worst defeat in Canadian history, taking only 34 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons and attracting less than 19 percent of the vote.
Leader Michael Ignatieff even lost his own seat and announced on Tuesday that he would step down as leader.
“Do we rise from the ashes like a phoenix or should we look at whether it would be better to have one center-left party in the country?” Eddie Goldenberg, who helped build three straight Liberal majorities from 1993 to 2004, asked on CBC radio.
The concern of many Liberals is that if the left remains divided, it will perpetuate Conservative rule. It was this sort of vote-splitting on the right that helped hand the Liberals those three majorities.
Such vote-splitting helped the Conservatives on Monday to seize many Liberal seats in Ontario and propel them to their first majority government since 1993, though the NDP also nearly tripled the number of its seats.
Monday’s combined Liberal-NDP vote was 49.5 percent, well above the 39.6 percent that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives received.
If all their voters had backed one merged party, Jack Layton would be prime minister today instead of Harper.
But it is not as simple as that.
The Liberals and New Democrats have decades of traditions and policies of their own, unlike the two right-wing parties -- the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance -- that merged in 2003 after a little more than a decade apart.
There is no guarantee that all the voters the two parties attracted separately on Monday would go for a merged party, perhaps one that shifts too far left for many Liberals.
As it was, some traditional Liberal voters undoubtedly voted Conservative this time in order to prevent a government led by the NDP, which promised billions of dollars in new spending as well as billions in new taxes and revenues.
Ignatieff said it was important to keep the Liberal Party as a separate entity at the center of the political spectrum.
“The surest guarantee of the survival of the Liberal Party will be four years of Conservative right-wing government and four years of NDP left-wing opposition,” he told reporters.
“And I think that after that experience Canadians will, I hope, again discover why you have the Liberal Party in the center.”
Yet he recognized that he will not have much of a say, and one of the main potential contenders to replace him, Bob Rae, said the Liberal Party has to seriously consider a merger with the NDP.
“We have a majority Conservative government with 40 percent of the vote, we have 60 percent of the people on the other side of the spectrum,” he told supporters as he celebrated his re-election.
“It would be a little strange if we didn’t talk about what that really means and how we can do something about that.”
For Rae, it would be an effortless switch. He served as an NDP legislator in the House of Commons before shifting to provincial politics in the early 1980s, and was NDP premier of Ontario from 1990-95. He switched to the Liberals in 2006.
With the Liberals reduced to a rump and the separatist Bloc Quebecois down to only four Quebec seats, the new Parliament could at first glance seem polarized between the NDP on the left and the Conservatives on the right.
Mitigating this is the fact that Layton and Harper actually get along well, having had numerous face-to-face policy discussions over the years.
And Harper has occupied some of the center ground, pledging for example to oppose any restrictions on abortion, and also to increase already-pricey transfers to the provinces for public health care.
“The Conservatives have successfully redefined the middle ground in Canadian politics,” the Globe and Mail said in its lead editorial on Tuesday. The Liberals, the paper added “have a daunting challenge ahead”.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson