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Jacobs: Canadian election could impact North Dakota

GRAND FORKS -- This week, we’ll take a break from North Dakota politics in order to spy on the neighbors.

That’s not because the political scene in North Dakota has grown dull. Far from it. Every week brings new permutations in what has become an extraordinary, even unprecedented situation in the state.

But that’s going to have to wait. The political situation north of the border is equally as interesting. It’s also more urgent — quite a bit more so, in fact.

Elections here are more than 13 months away. Canadians will elect a new Parliament on Oct. 19, less than a month away. And while the race is interesting for the politics alone, the results also could have implications on our side of the border.

Politics first.

The race is very tight. Half a dozen polls released in the past week showed a statistical dead heat. The three major parties finished on either side of 30 percent.

What’s even more extraordinary, each party led in at least one poll. And all of the poll margins were within the statistical margin of error.

Polling in Canada is less straightforward and less predictive than in the United States, for two reasons. First, Canada has a multi-party system, with three major parties and several smaller but sometimes significant parties.

Second, voters don’t choose the prime minister in the way that Americans choose the president. Instead, they vote for a local member of Parliament. The leader of the party that elects the most members forms the government — usually.

The campaign does have a personal flavor, though, because the party leaders campaign nationwide and participate in debates, just as presidential candidates in the United States do.

Still, it is possible that the three parties could divide the vote nationwide pretty evenly, but one party or another could end with a lopsided number of members of Parliament. The candidate with the most votes wins, whether that’s a majority or not.

In other words, it doesn’t matter is the margin is. That’s because the leading vote getter wins the seat, whether the margin is three or 3,000.

The upshot is that a party could get the most popular votes but not win the most seats.

That’s not the end of the complications, of course. If no party wins a majority of seats, the party with the largest number of seats looks for a coalition partner to form a government. If that fails, the other parties could gang up on the largest parliamentary faction and form a government of their own.

This is inherently unstable, of course, because a coalition partner could change its mind, bring the government down and force a new election.

This all seems strange to Americans, but it is the way parliamentary governments work, and such systems work in many of the world’s democracies.

The very close race is a bit of change from earlier in the campaign, when it appeared that the leftist New Democratic Party might win enough seats to form a majority government. The NDP may yet win the largest number of seats, but an absolute majority now seems out of reach.

At the same time, the Conservative Party, now in power, could eke out a win.

Or so could the Liberals, the third major party.

It’s a Liberal surge that has closed the gap in the polls. This would surprise Americans, too, because the party leader, Justin Trudeau, has said he’d run budget deficits for at least several years.

Trudeau is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His position on spending shows that despite conservative hegemony for several decades, Keynesians have not been driven from public life in North America.

The New Democrat Party, led by Thomas Mulcair, is an enigma, too. It has a Socialist heritage, but Mulcair has promised balanced budgets to be achieved by new taxes on the wealthy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, running for re-election at the head of the Conservative Party, promises more of what he has delivered while in office: tight budgets and an involved foreign policy.

A continued Conservative government would mean little change on our side of the border.

Any other result could have local consequences.

An NDP victory is probably most fraught. The party has a history of anti-American views, including vehement opposition to water projects dear to many North Dakotans.

New Democrats also favor policies that would keep Canadian shoppers at home, including taxes on goods bought south of the border. They also have a history of supporting currency manipulation, which is easier in Canada than in the United States because Canada has a national bank, the Bank of Canada.

The most immediate consequence of an NDP win, probably, would be the death of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Mulcair has opposed the project — even lobbying against it in the United States — on the grounds that it would destroy Canadian jobs.

The Liberals have spent the past decade in the Canadian political wilderness; their attitude toward these issues is less clear. The party had fewer than 15 percent of the seats in the last Parliament, so it wasn’t an influential factor. This outsider status may help attract voters, but it leaves the consequences of the election a little unclear.

If the result is as close as the polls suggest, there will be a lot of deal making.

Jacobs is the Grand Forks Herald’s former publisher and editor. For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This weekly column resurrects the name — and the spirit — of that undertaking.