Oh, Canada

Posted Oct. 28, 2008, at 5:34 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:26 a.m.

If you lived in Canada, your national elections would be over by now. And you would have had to endure just six weeks of campaigning.

Canada employs a parliamentary system, evidence of its ties to the United Kingdom. Under that system, representatives to the legislative body choose one of their own to lead the government. That person, the prime minister, is able to call a national election from time to time. Those calls are usually made when the prime minister believes his party can win. In Canada, incumbent Prime Minister Steven Harper called for a national election in late summer.

The Oct. 14 election was the third national election in four years, evidence of shifting loyalties and philosophies among Canadians. In recent years, no majority party has emerged from among the five major parties in Canada: the Conservatives, Liberals, the New Democratic Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the Greens. Parties holding minority control of Parliament can form coalitions to create majorities, which then select a prime minister.

Mr. Harper was exasperated with having a minority, according to observers, and so called for yet another election, hoping to win a majority. His party gained seats, but is still short of a majority.

The term “gridlock” is rarely used these days in describing the U.S. government. Gridlock often comes when the two major parties hold parity in the legislative bodies, or when one party controls the executive branch and the other controls the legislative branch. Gridlock is what followed the big Republican win in Congress in 1994; President Clinton had to cast himself as a third entity — neither Democrat nor Republican — to win support for his plans. Even so, Republicans gleefully seized the chance to impeach Mr. Clinton late in his second term.

Gridlock is what shut down Maine state government in 1991, when the Democratic-controlled Legislature refused to pass workers’ compensation reform proposed by Republican Gov. John McKernan.

Those outcomes were not good for doing the people’s business.

The other side of the coin has held sway more recently. In Washington, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House for six of the last eight years. And in Augusta, the Democrats have controlled both houses of the Legislature along with the Blaine House for the last six years.

It’s not likely that we will see multiple parties in U.S. government anytime soon, as seen in Canada. But there are groups within Congress that put principles above party, like the energy focused Gang of 20 — 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, of which Sen. Susan Collins is a member — and the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, of which Rep. Mike Michaud is a member.

If Democrats win the White House and make gains in Congress, as is likely, they will have the majority that Mr. Harper craves. If they are wise, Democrats will treat that victory as a prime minister in a parliamentary system would, looking to build coalitions, or risk a reversal of fortune in the next election.

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