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Election drumbeats and flag waves

24 Jan

This past weekend, inside an Ottawa convention centre, the Prime Minister of Canada stood in front of the biggest Canadian flag this side of Canada Day, at a podium bearing a placard with a single word in large white letters:

“Canada”.

To a crowd of hundreds of supporters waving smaller Canadian flags, there to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his government’s first election victory, Stephen Harper spoke of the people “who are the foundations of Canada”:

“The truck driver. The bank teller. The pensioner. The salesperson. The farmer, the fisherman. The entrepreneur, the autoworker. The tradesperson and the soldier… Whoever has the honor to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”

No mention of Canada-loving college professors or patriotic performance artists. But never mind…

The same weekend as Harper was giving his anniversary speech, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was wrapping up an 11-day tour of 20 ridings across Canada that his party thinks it can win from other parties.

“Canadians are entitled to ask, ‘are you better off than you were five years ago,’ “ Ignatieff said at the outset of his tour. “Is the economy stronger and is Canada more respected in the world? And I think the answers to all of those questions is no.”

NDP leader Jack Layton was on a cross-country tour of his own.

“If an election comes, New Democrats will be ready to go,” Layton said in Vancouver. “But until then, we’re asking Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to work with us to get some results for Canadians right now.”

To underline the election-readiness half of that double-barreled message, the NDP offered reporters a “sneak peak at their new cutting-edge election headquarters” in Ottawa. A few days earlier, a reporter obtained and published an internal NDP memo declaring the party “prepared to wage an aggressive federal election campaign at any time”.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal parties released campaign-style attack ads.

The two Liberal ads were both aimed at the Prime Minister, painting him as more interested in fighter jets and corporate tax cuts than in the concerns of ordinary Canadians, and asking “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s?”

The Conservatives had several different ads attacking each of the other major party leaders, although Ignatieff was targeted more than others.

“Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you,” declared the Conservative ads, which described the Leader of the Official Opposition as a tax-and-spend liberal with a dubious commitment to his home country, similar to earlier attack ads that claimed Ignatieff was “just visiting” Canada after many years abroad.

So… are you ready for an election campaign? Or maybe you kinda feel we’re already into one.

Or maybe you’d rather not even think about it even a little bit. If that’s the case, you’re probably in the majority.

And maybe you won’t really have to think about it at all. Because it all could be a bluff.

In a minority Parliament, parties are always in election mode, ready to hit the campaign trail at any moment. And we’ve now had minority Parliaments in this country for more than 6.5 straight years. That’s a Canadian record, if you’re keeping score.

Over that time we’ve had a number of near-elections. Remember Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to help save Paul Martin’s minority government? Remember Stéphane Dion repeating over and over again how he had the power to pull the plug on Harper’s government… until finally Harper decided to pull it himself? Remember when Ignatieff announced, “Mr. Harper, your time is up?”

Ignatieff’s announcement came more than 17 months ago. No, there hasn’t been an election since then.

If there is an election this year, it likely will be triggered by a defeat of the federal budget sometime before the end of March. Any later than that and a federal election will come up against a number of already scheduled provincial elections, including Ontario’s.

Of course, all it will take to avoid an election will be a single opposition party deciding it is in its interest to prop up the government for another while longer.

But if this latest not-quite-an-election period is any indication, we already have a sense of how the next real campaign will unfold:

It will get personal. There will be flag waving. And if poll numbers (which have remained relatively consistent in the five years since Harper’s first election victory) don’t move much during the campaign, then we’re looking at many more record months of minority Parliament.

The NDP: What Might Have Been…

12 May

In the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics, we are into the fifth month in power of the current coalition government, led by that most unexpected of Prime Ministers, Stéphane Dion.

The reviews are mixed. The controversial way the government took power has divided Canadians along geographic and partisan lines. It’s also still unclear how well its fiscal plan will help alleviate the country’s economic crisis. But on the foreign affairs front, Dion’s good relationship with like-minded American President Barack Obama has had a positive effect on our country’s relations with the United States, with new bilateral agreements in the works.

Of course, the government has been helped immensely by the complete chaos on the opposition benches. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is facing open internal revolt over his leadership, after letting power slip from his hands into those of Dion, mere weeks after the Tory election victory. The Official Opposition has been giving the government a much freer ride than expected, as it sorts through its own divisions and ponders its newly shaky future.

For their part, Bloc Québécois MPs have been absolute pussycats, content to bask in the glow of their success in helping to bring this new government into being, and showing no sign of breaking the agreement that will keep the coalition in power – and the Bloc in its influential kingmaker role – for many months to come.

As for New Democrats, they have never been in a better political position, experiencing Parliament from the government benches for the first time in party history. NDP leader Jack Layton, Dion’s prominent Industry Minister, is up every day in the House of Commons answering questions about his sweeping auto industry bailout. Layton is enjoying unprecedented influence in Canadian politics and heightened attention from news media, while the NDP learns lessons about the discipline of power that will serve it well in election campaigns to come.

Okay… it’s not called the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics for nothing.

Back here in our own dimension, things have unfolded quite differently over the past few months. Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister and maintains a firm grip on the Conservative Party, despite that party’s precipitous drop in the polls.

Stéphane Dion is long gone, replaced as Liberal leader by Michael Ignatieff, who put the kibosh to the coalition and saw his party’s popularity rise above the Tories’.

As for Jack Layton… well… what happened to Layton anyhow?

To some extent, every party leader rolled the dice somewhat during the coalition drama last fall. But it was the New Democrats who arguably had the most to gain – a place in government for the first time ever – and who also took the biggest risk in pushing for a coalition.

The idea, in fact, was hatched by the NDP, and Layton was its most emphatic proponent.

“Prime minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House,” Layton said on the day the coalition agreement was signed, “and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity.”

That, of course, wasn’t to be.

In the fallout from the coalition’s collapse, some observers say the NDP has become somewhat marginalized in national politics. It is down in the polls, with a diminished role in Parliament. This despite the fact that Ignatieff has moved the Liberals farther to the right, theoretically leaving more room for New Democrats on the left side of the political spectrum.

“The New Democrat caucus tried to do a big thing – tried to replace the government. And it didn’t happen,” said NDP strategist Brian Topp in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “Undertakings that don’t succeed don’t build support.”

So what will rebuild support for the New Democrats? Some suggest a return to the party’s more traditional role as a principled opposition voice from the left. The eternal conundrum for NDPers, of course, is to what extent they should play the political game at the expense of compromising their principles. In the last election, Layton played power politics, explicitly running for Prime Minister.

But despite Layton’s modest electoral success in comparison to his predecessors, some think the party has been more influential as a kind of pressure group from the opposition benches, rather than as a pretender to the throne. There are even some whisperings that for the party to move forward, Layton may have to step down.

It’s a far cry from the alternate universe that might have been, where flowers grow high, the sun always shines, and New Democrats sit in cabinet.

The Legend of Iggy the Liberal

28 Apr

A long, long time ago, not far from a river, close to a park, in a great big house called Stornoway, there lived a tall, thin man named Stéphane. He was the Leader of the Liberals.

It was a nice big house. It had a beautiful yard for his dog, Kyoto. And lots of closet space. And a cook. But Stéphane wanted to live down the road, in an even bigger house, with an even bigger yard, even closer to the river.

So he asked the people of the land to vote for his party. And for something called a Green Shift. And if all went according to plan, and if enough people liked him and his shift, and voted for his party, Stéphane would soon be packing up his bags and his dog, and maybe even his cook. And he’d be heading down to that bigger house by the river.

But the people didn’t really understand Stéphane’s Green Shift. They didn’t always really understand Stéphane himself, truth be told. Not nearly enough people liked him and his party. And not nearly enough people voted for him.

So he called a press conference and announced he was leaving his house for a different, smaller house, and he would let someone else from his party come live in Stornoway. But not for a long, long time.

Soon enough, though, Stéphane made one last risky bid for a move into the big house by the river. With the help of a shorter, balder, smiling man named Jack, and the support of another tall man named Gilles, Stéphane made an unexpected grab for power. And if it wasn’t for that meddling Governor-General, and a wonky video camera, it just might have worked.

But it didn’t work, and the people weren’t happy with Stéphane. They told the pollsters of the land that they liked his party even less than before. And the Liberals weren’t happy with Stéphane, and they convinced him to take his dog and banish himself from Stornoway forever.

The cook stayed behind to make meals for Stéphane’s replacement. It was another tall, thin man who hoped to move into the bigger house down by the road near the river. The new man was called Iggy,

Everyone knew Iggy wanted Stéphane’s job for a long time. He had been the runner-up to Stéphane in the last contest for the leadership of his party. But back then, Iggy was seen as too new, too divisive, too prone to gaffes, too snooty, and too unfamiliar with the land he wanted to lead because he had lived for many years in another kingdom far, far away over the sea.

But times had changed, and maybe Iggy had, too. He had developed a more common touch. He had become more adept at playing the games of politics. He had tasted a lot of rubber chicken and shaken a lot of hands in every fiefdom across the land.

Rivals for the succession – a sandy-haired man named Bob and a stocky young man named Dominic – stepped aside and gave Iggy a clear path to the leadership, not to mention the front-door keys to Stornoway, with its vast closet space, and its big yard, and its short distance from that bigger house down the road.

Soon, it grew darker across the land. Tradesmen began losing their jobs. Commerce became more difficult to practice. The treasuries faced great challenges. The Prime Minister of the land – who lived in that bigger house so coveted by Stéphane and Iggy – grew more and more unpopular.

The people told the pollsters of the land that they liked Iggy more and more. Soon he was just as popular as the Prime Minister himself.

But questions remained:

Was Iggy’s party really a national party anymore – did people all across the land support it enough, or was it only popular in select fiefdoms?

Were Iggy’s leadership and the Prime Minister’s fumbles enough for the party to rebuild, or was the prospect of power preventing the Liberals from conducting serious reflection about what they stood for?

What did Iggy stand for? His critics said he stood for whatever the last voter he spoke to wanted him to stand for. And then he stood for other things when he spoke to other voters.

The people across the land reserved judgment. The Liberals remained hopeful. And Iggy sat in Stornoway, plotting his next moves, and keeping his eye on the bigger house down the road by the river.

The Conservative (???!!!!) Budget

30 Jan

Sometimes the best way to put present circumstances in perspective and to figure out what to expect in future is to look back on the past.

With that in mind, I dug out an old report card.

The comments started out well:

“The positives are impressive: he has a brilliant strategic mind, a sound grasp of public policy, and good communications skills in both French and English.”

Not bad. On the other hand:

“The negatives – his mistrust of the grassroots, his tendency not to be a team player … and the tendency to withdraw – are manageable if they are acknowledged and compensated for by the strengths of others.”

Well, there you have it. The good and the bad. A blunt assessment of protégée by mentor.

The protégée, in this case, is the Prime Minister of Canada. And the mentor is no political detractor, but rather Preston Manning, the man who gave Stephen Harper his first job in politics, as his trusted lieutenant in the Reform Party that Manning founded and led.

The Reform Party, of course, morphed into the Canadian Alliance, which Stephen Harper eventually led into a merger with the old PC Party. The united Right party – the big-C Conservatives – then took power, Harper became Prime Minister, and the small-c conservative revolution that Manning championed became reality in Canada.

Not so fast.

Did you happen to hear about the federal budget released the other day? Huge deficits, massive spending, the addition of a forecasted $85-billion to the national debt over five years, the creation of a new Trudeauesque regional development agency – this one for recession-ravaged Southern Ontario, and… hard to believe, but true… money for culture and the arts.

The old Reform Party – indeed, the old Harper – would have furiously attacked any government that dared to propose this kind of a budget. The old Harper would have called it wasteful, irresponsible… liberal.

Instead, it was his party and his government that introduced just such a budget.

Clearly, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

What we’re in, of course, is a global economic crisis. And the budget is a reaction to that. Governments – conservative and liberal alike – all over the Western world are proposing similar measures to stimulate their economies.

In their budget document, Canada’s Conservatives described their measures as “timely”, “targeted” and “temporary”. Whether or not they turn out to be any of those things won’t be evident for many months.

What the measures clearly aren’t:

Conservative.

The government anticipates that once things improve, it will be able to revert to its more traditional approach of slashing spending, paying down the debt, and shrinking the role of government in the economy instead of expanding it.

This may be wishful thinking. History has shown that it’s much easier to open the spending taps than it is to close them again.

Of course, every budget is not only an economic blueprint, but also a political document. This one perhaps more than others because it comes after the government’s near-death experience last fall. The budget was designed to save the government from defeat at the hands of a newly united opposition.

In that respect, it seems to have succeeded, at least in the short run. The morning after the budget’s release, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters he was putting the Conservatives “on probation” and the Official Opposition would support the budget as long as the government agreed to regular reports to Parliament on the progress of the economy.

That’s a heck of a lot better for Harper than what Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, was offering last fall – namely, an immediate vote of non-confidence in the government and its replacement by a coalition government.

Which brings us back to Preston Manning’s observations about Harper, taken from Manning’s 2002 autobiography.

Global economic crisis aside, the reason the government had to move as far as it did from its core philosophical beliefs in introducing such a budget is tied to some of the negative characteristics that Manning observed in his former lieutenant.

Harper’s mistrust of consultation, his go-it-alone instincts, led him astray, revitalized his political opposition and created a situation where his government will be forced to consult Liberals more than ever before and put a tremendous amount of water in its ideological wine if it wants to survive.

If you disagree with the Conservative Party’s ideology, you’ll see that as a good thing for the country. But if you’re a true believer, you may be pining for the days of Reform.

Programming note: I produced an interesting televised panel discussion on this very topic the other day, where smarter minds than I weighed in. You can download a podcast here.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.

***

Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.

 

 

Stéphane Dion, Joe Clark and John Tory

1 Nov

On the evening of Dec. 2, 2006, in a wide corridor of Montreal’s Palais des congrès, I bumped into a political lobbyist of my acquaintance.

Both of us were trudging slowly through the middle of a large, loud and excited crowd of people, everyone leaving the main hall of the convention centre and heading out the doors toward the charms of downtown Montreal Saturday night.

Not too much earlier, inside the main hall, Stéphane Dion stood on a confetti-laden stage, flanked by Jean Chrétien, John Turner, and Paul Martin, three former residents of 24 Sussex Drive.

As the music blared and Dion waved to the thousands of convention delegates who had just elected him as the newest – and perhaps unlikeliest – leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, he had every reason to believe he would one day also live in the same house, and hold the same title of Prime Minister, as had the men surrounding him.

After all, of the ten Liberals who preceded Dion as leader, only one – Edward Blake – had failed to become Prime Minister of Canada. And Blake’s leadership of the party came to an end in 1887.

Dion had just won a job that had provided a surefire ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office for almost twelve decades straight.

The delegates seemed as united as could be expected after a dramatic, emotion-laden convention that saw Dion go from fourth to first place over two days and four ballots.

He had come into the convention with the estimated support of about 15 per cent of the delegates, well behind front-runner Michael Ignatieff’s 28 per cent.

But on the final ballot, with only Dion and Ignatieff left standing, he beat the former front-runner 55 to 45 per cent.

He was a compromise candidate, sure, coming up the middle of a bitter, divisive rivalry between Ignatieff and Bob Rae. But as they streamed out of the convention hall, most delegates seemed happy with the choice, many of them won over by Dion’s fresh message of change, integrity and environmentalism. Some felt they had dodged a bullet by picking the best candidate to unite the party behind a new kind of politics and a new, greener vision of Liberalism.

My hard-bitten acquaintance in the crowded hallway wasn’t buying any of it. He had come to the convention as a Rae supporter, and was departing it shaking his head, unmoved by the victory of the bookish Dion.

“The Liberals,” he said to me moments after I offered my greetings, “just had their Joe Clark moment.”

Almost two years later, the comparison has proven apt. Dion, like Clark three decades earlier when he won the Progressive Conservative leadership, had few allies in his party, won the leadership by default when more charismatic and prominent rivals failed to earn enough delegate trust, and promptly developed a reputation as an honorable-but-bumbling leader with big ideas but few political smarts to implement them.

After leading his party in last month’s federal election to one of the worst electoral defeats in its history, and then reluctantly announcing he was stepping down from the leadership, Dion has joined Edward Blake as the answer to a newly rephrased political trivia question:

Who were the only two Liberal leaders who failed to become Prime Minister?

In his electoral campaign, Dion resembled not so much Joe Clark but more John Tory, the Ontario PC leader who crashed and burned in last year’s provincial election campaign.

Both Dion and Tory ran big policy ideas up the flagpole for voters – Tory’s was public funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools and Dion’s was the so-called Green Shift, which promised income tax cuts to balance out a new carbon tax that would help fight climate change – but neither leader bothered to check beforehand if members of his own party were saluting.

After Tory lost the election last year, here’s what I wrote about his campaign here:

Conviction does matter, of course. And yes, principles and policies also matter. But in the absence of politics – the process by which those-who-would-lead persuade those-who-would-be-led to follow them down any particular path – conviction and policies can be as hollow as… well… as hollow as John Tory’s campaign turned out to be.

The description fits Dion’s campaign, too.

Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills perceived that day by at least one clear-eyed observer in the crowd.

Picking through election entrails

15 Oct

Suppose they held an election and nothing happened?

Not too much, anyway.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the 2.5-year-old minority Parliament to be unworkable.

In search of a more workable mandate, he violated his own fixed-election-date legislation to dissolve that Parliament and send Canadians to the polls for the third time in four years.

Five weeks, 300-million-dollars, one pooping puffin controversy, two roundtable debates, dozens of negative ads, and one international economic crisis later, did he get that mandate?

Well… kinda.

Sorta.

In his third kick at the can as party leader, Harper’s Conservatives gained a few seats, but still fell short of a majority government. And thanks to some ill-received policies and poorly executed strategies, the party failed to build upon its big Quebec breakthrough in the last election, once again winning ten seats in that province.

The NDP, under Jack Layton, also picked up a few more seats, but fell far short of the goal Layton publicly and repeatedly set. He said he was running for Prime Minister, but ended up once again as the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons.

With the help of some Conservative self-inflicted wounds, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois won by holding steady. Once again, the Bloc showed that rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated, as it won the lion’s share of Quebec seats for the sixth straight election. More than any other factor, it is the Bloc’s enduring ability to hold onto dozens of Quebec seats that accounts for the fact that Canadians have elected minority governments in three elections running.

The Green Party won a plethora of publicity and media attention, a seat at the table of the televised leaders’ debates for leader Elizabeth May, and in the end, exactly zero seats in the House of Commons for all its efforts.

And then there is the Liberal Party…

Oh, the Liberals…

It was one of the worst election results ever for the Grits, once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The Liberals won only eight seats west of Ontario, suffered a net loss of seats in their Atlantic Canada stronghold, and made some marginal gains in Quebec, where they continued to be almost exclusively limited to the island of Montreal.

But the most telling results for the Liberal Party came in Ontario. A decade ago, the party regularly won almost all of the available seats in this province. This time around, it didn’t even take most of those 106 seats.

Conservative candidates won almost half of all Ontario ridings, the NDP increased its seat count in the province by almost 50 per cent by taking away Liberal seats in Northern Ontario, and the Liberal Party was in retreat everywhere save its electoral fortress of Toronto.

Even in the country’s largest city, the Conservatives began showing signs of breaching the Liberal castle walls. They took several seats in the suburban 905 region just outside of Toronto.

And Conservative star candidate Peter Kent won the riding of Thornhill, which borders the city of Toronto.

Thornhill happens to be the riding with the largest per-capita Jewish population in the province. It also happens to be the one riding the provincial Progressive Conservative party picked up in their wretched campaign during last year’s Ontario election.

Picking through the entrails of this year’s federal vote, there were several other signs the Conservative Party has made some headway in their attempts to win over the support of the traditionally big-L-Liberal so-called ethnic vote.

The Conservatives took several ridings with diverse multicultural populations from the Liberals in Ontario and British Columbia. And in Toronto proper, ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, and Willowdale – ridings with significant minority-group populations that are usually among the safest Liberal seats in the country – featured much tighter races.

In 2006, Liberal Joe Volpe won Eglinton-Lawrence by defeating his Conservative rival by more than 11,000 votes. This time around, Volpe’s margin of victory was reduced to 2,200.

Within hours – minutes even – of the final vote count, quotes from anonymous Liberals began appearing in the media calling for the head of leader Stéphane Dion.

Fighting his first election as leader, Dion failed miserably to reverse his party’s slide of the past few years.

But the nearly bankrupt and disunited Liberals can ill-afford another lengthy, expensive and divisive leadership race.

After all, we’ve ended up with another minority Parliament, and Canadians may be going to the polls yet again before too long.