Friday, November 28, 2008

Harper in zugzwang

[Samisch-Nimzovich 1923: White to move and lose]

Playing chess with his opposition, Stephen Harper has blundered into zugzwang--a position in which any moves he now makes will eventually be fatal. Never mind the frantic blustering of his old UCal-pal Barry Cooper, presented as a dispassionate expert by--who else--CTV. He's done like dinner.

Harper will be out of power in a few days--his just-announced plan to postpone the inevitable will not save him. Canadians will have proportional representation in all but name: a new government will replace one that a clear majority of Canadians rejected at the polls.

How did it come to this? Blind arrogance, hubris, an uncharacteristic misreading of his opponents? At the recent Conservative Convention in Winnipeg, Harper counseled patience to his rank-and-file, but he appears to have failed to take his own advice.

His entire strategy now lies in ruins. First he managed to madden and unite the opposition by threatening to bankrupt it with a well-timed (or so he clearly thought) repeal of public funding. His next move was to remove that proposal from play, expecting the forces arrayed against him to back off, and thus exposing them as narrowly self-interested.

But he gave them no marge de manoeuvre. The opposition parties could not permit themselves to be bankrupted. But neither could they allow themselves to back off once that threat was removed. Harper outsmarted himself by trying to corner his opponents. There is only one way out of a corner.

By forcing a coalition dialogue to happen, Harper let the genie out of the bottle. Coalition talk has its own momentum. It takes a major event to bring feuding parties into alignment. A threat to their survival is one of those events that can trigger new ways of thinking. Now anything is possible. A paradigm shift is taking place right before our eyes.

The potential here is simply enormous--as are the risks. The Trudeau-Lewis social accord of the early 1970's proved to be disastrous for the NDP, as Trudeau played his own superior game of chess with consummate skill. When the NDP went along with him, they were made to look like sell-outs; when they opposed him (and we've seen some of this same spin recently) they were made to look destructive and irresponsible. In the next election, the NDP was devastated.

But there are new players on the scene now. The NDP has a long memory, and will engage more skillfully, I believe, in the new statecraft. Working in coalition will be a learning experience, but it will be for the Liberals too.

The opposition parties have been virtually frogmarched into government by Stephen Harper. They will need a plan, and a public pledge to work together for a reasonable period.
There is no reason why they cannot provide both to the Governor-General.

Let them govern, and let them govern well.

UPDATE: Sign the open letter!

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