Letter From Canada

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When Canada's federal election was called in late March, no one expected such a dramatic outcome.

On 2 May the incumbent Conservatives managed to transform their minority government into a majority, but the real story was the surprise second-place finish of Canada's social democrats. For the first time ever the New Democratic Party (NDP) will form the official opposition, ending the domination of parliament by pro-corporate parties.

The NDP's breakthrough was tempered by the Tories' victory, but the results do not represent a shift to the right - far from it. The Tories' share of the vote went up by only 1.97 percent since the last election, while voter turnout was the second lowest in history. The Tories won a majority with just 24 percent of the electorate, taking a total of 166 seats out of 308.

By contrast, the NDP surge generated an additional two million votes, many of them from first-time voters. The party rose from 36 seats to 103, leaping from fourth place in parliament to second. It tied the record for parliament's biggest opposition. The results transformed Canada's political landscape.

The Liberals - once the favoured party of Canadian capitalism - were decimated, finishing third for the first time ever. Led by former Harvard academic and pro-war apologist Michael Ignatieff, the so-called "natural governing party of Canada" supported almost every Conservative initiative in the last two minority parliaments - backing corporate tax cuts, the purchase of F35 fighter jets and the extension of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. The NDP's opposition to the war, although tepid, helped distinguish the party from the Liberals.

In Quebec the Bloc Québécois - a nationalist party that advocates Quebec's independence from Canada - was almost wiped out, dropping from 47 seats to just four. But its demise does not signal an end to the national question in Quebec. The NDP won Bloc voters by supporting Quebec's right to self-determination. Its anti-war stance also attracted votes in the province where opposition to the war is the highest in Canada.

The new terrain represents both opportunities and challenges for the left.

The biggest opportunity is to relate to the millions who voted NDP and draw them into day to day struggles. The sentiment that propelled the NDP to second place is much bigger than the number of seats it won. NDP candidates came second in 122 constituencies - in some cases, losing by just a few votes.

That sentiment is part of a global mood for change, inspired by revolutions in the Arab world, the student revolt in Britain, the strike-waves in Greece and Ireland, and the rebirth of the US class struggle in Wisconsin. Although on a much smaller scale, there have been important strikes led by steel workers in Ontario and public sector workers in Quebec - part of the same fight against the effects of the global economic crisis.

The NDP's success has its fault-lines. Like its provincial counter parts that have adopted right wing agendas once in power, the NDP will come under tremendous pressure to occupy the centre ground, in order to replace the defeated Liberals. This would be a disaster, but not a surprise. Already some party strategists have argued that the NDP's success is based on its moderate platform, not the widely held perception that it was a real alternative to the Liberals and Tories.

There are also risks in Quebec, where the NDP now has more than half its seats. If the party abandons its support for self-determination to placate Anglo chauvinism in English Canada, it will alienate its new found support in the French-speaking province.

The biggest challenge will come from the Tories, who are now poised to impose their austerity agenda much more aggressively. Postal workers are first in the line of fire, as Canada Post attempts to cut wages, pensions and benefits. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has responded with a 95 percent strike mandate. The left must not rely on the NDP to build the fight. Activists must build solidarity from the bottom up - in workplaces, in campuses, in their neighbourhoods, and between workers in English Canada and Quebec.

What matters most is not the number of NDP MPs in parliament, but the surge that got them elected - and whether the left can take it to the streets.

James Clark is a member of the International Socialists in Toronto