First, Queen's University parliamentary geek Ned Franks:
1. A majority government. If it's a Conservative majority, then Stephen Harper continues as prime minister.
He retains the title throughout the election in any event and it's actually up to him to resign if another party wins a larger number of seats on election night, which is what he said he would do in his interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge.
2. A minority government with an opposition party holding the most seats. If the NDP, Liberals or even the Bloc Québécois were to win the largest number of seats - but no majority - Harper could still face the House and try his luck.
"Even if the Tories win fewer seats than the Liberals or NDP, they are entitled to meet the House and face it in a vote of confidence," Franks said. "Prime ministers in Canada do not normally exercise this right."
But there was at least one famous instance of this taking place: Mackenzie King in 1925 when his party fell to second place in a minority Parliament, more than a dozen seats behind the Conservatives, but stayed on for some months anyway with the support of the Progressives.
3. A minority Conservative government. Harper could continue as prime minister, perhaps much as he has for the past five years by cajoling and/or coercing support issue by issue.
Still, he could lose a confidence vote soon into his term if the other parties gang up on him, something he has been warning about constantly throughout this campaign.
Would this gang-up be more or less likely to happen if the NDP turns out to be the second-place finisher? That is, would the Liberals want to make Jack Layton prime minister and so affirm their third-party status? We leave that to the analysts.
All we know for certain is that in this third scenario, a minority Conservative government would have to table a throne speech to lay out its priorities and a budget (the one in March was never passed), presumably within the next month or so...
If we do wake up on May 3 with what the Brits call a hung Parliament and the Conservatives not in a commanding lead, then there are three precedents to keep in mind for when second-place finishers might step up and govern.
- The October 1925 federal election in which the (and scandal-plagued) Mackenzie King Liberals governed for another eight months until the Conservatives were given a brief shot and an election was called. (History buffs will know this as the infamous King-Byng affair.)
- The May 2,1985 Ontario election (52 Conservatives, 48 Liberals and 25 NDP) after which Liberal David Peterson and then NDP leader Bob Rae agreed to a two-year "accord" (not a coalition) to put Peterson in the premier's chair.
Note: Negotiating the accord and defeating the ruling Conservatives on their throne speech took nearly two months to bring about.
- The May 6, 2010 British election, which resulted in the first minority parliament at Westminster in decades: 307 Conservatives, 257 Labour and 57 Liberal Democrats.
For four days, the three parties entered into separate but intense negotiations to determine who would support whom, the result being a formal coalition arrangement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
The deal was struck nine days after the election and Parliament reconvened a week after that, which was a long time for the Brits but incredibly short by Canadian standards.
Peter Russell next provides a similar take:
When the House does meet and no party has a majority, there are basically three ways of forming a government. First, the Conservatives can simply carry on as a minority government hoping to win support, issue by issue, from opposition MPs. Second, either the Conservatives or the party that finishes second in seat numbers can form a legislative alliance with one or more other parties that would agree to support them on the basis of a shared legislative program. Such an agreement between David Peterson’s Liberals (who finished second to Frank Miller’s Conservatives) and Bob Rae’s NDP gave Ontario a stable minority after the 1985 provincial election. In this option, the parties supporting a Liberal or NDP government would not have cabinet positions. The third option is a coalition government in which two or more parties form a government and share cabinet posts.Short answer, Con majority is Con majority; a Con minority and things get murky. The GG might well have a larger than usual role to play in the outcome. Because Harper is an asshole.
All three options are constitutionally legitimate. Indeed, in the dozens of parliamentary democracies around the world, it’s highly unusual for any party to have a parliamentary majority. Governments in most of these countries are either coalitions or single-party minorities supported through alliances with opposition parties.
If the Conservatives don’t win a majority on Monday, Mr. Harper isn’t likely to try to form a coalition government or make a legislative alliance with any opposition party. So what would happen if his government fails to win the support of any opposition party when the House meets in late May or early June and is defeated on the Speech from the Throne?
At this point, constitutionally, Mr. Harper has two options. He could resign and advise the Governor-General to invite the leader of the party with the second-largest number of seats, either Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton, to form a government. Or he could advise the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call another election.
It’s the second case that lands us in a “constitutional crisis” similar to the Byng-King affair of 1926. The principal that the Governor-General must be guided by in considering Mr. Harper’s request is that a prime minister’s advice (even if the prime minister has lost a confidence vote in the House) should be rejected only if doing so is necessary to protect the integrity of our parliamentary system. Calling an election, the fifth in seven years, just a few weeks after the last election when there’s a plausible alternative government that can command the confidence of the new Parliament may well be such a situation.
Of course, it all depends on whether Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Layton can make a plausible case that a government one of them heads will be supported by a majority in the House. The Governor-General will need more than their good intentions to have the compelling case he needs to justify rejecting the Prime Minister’s advice.
If Monday’s election produces a House in which no party has a majority, let’s hope our political leaders have the good sense to work together to avoid a Byng-King constitutional crisis.