The next election campaign will start Tuesday morning

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The meaning of the sudden NDP surge is this: It's a grasping for hope in a dispiriting situation in which all of the likely outcomes are bad. That grasping comes from within the majority -- from the 60 per cent or more who see Stephen Harper as a negative, anti-democratic force.

Above all, it raises the question of how to ultimately bring together this loose centre into one, uniting not only Liberals and New Democrats, but disaffected Progressive Conservatives and both federalists and soft nationalists in Quebec, perhaps leaving the Greens in the left-wing slot the NDP used to occupy.

Although surprising because we thought nothing could change in the federal voting landscape, the NDP surge is easily enough understood in the light of our Nova Scotian experience. The two traditional parties, caught up in an outdated political culture, failed in turn and Nova Scotians, despite our supposed social conservatism, voted in the NDP (despite a last-minute "red scare"). On the whole it's a stabilizing force, despite the complaints.

It's instructive that the place where the surge started is Quebec, where both the Liberals' and Conservatives' names are mud -- in spades -- after the Mulroney Meech Lake fiasco, then the sponsorship scandal with the Chrétien Liberals.

The Bloc Québécois became the default position, although voting for it was essentially a pointless and defeatist act. Bloc voters had become low-hanging fruit. No one was capable of picking it until, overripe, it started falling into NDP laps by itself.

It's true that anything may happen with this volatile NDP rise. It could bring about what it seeks to avoid -- a Conservative majority -- by splitting the non-Conservative vote. It could make the NDP the official Opposition. On the outer range of mathematical possibility, with all the split ridings, it could give the NDP a minority government.

Or the vote could shrink to insignificance by Monday, although that seems unlikely.

Already, although we're only talking about polling results, the rise has had certain effects.

For one, it has produced the enormous service of disconcerting Quebec separatists who only a few weeks ago saw imminent victories at both the federal and provincial levels as a signal for a new run at independence. That seems to be derailed, and the perception of that derailment is no doubt a big part of what's boosting the NDP elsewhere.

It has also produced another invaluable service: serving as the rallying point around which an apparent upwelling youth vote has emerged. Monday's results still have to be seen to judge the extent of it, but youth participation is certainly a cause for celebration.

Meanwhile, I haven't heard anyone for a couple of weeks tell me emphatically that they're not voting. That too may have changed. The use of social media -- largely a youth phenomenon -- is also a factor, with the anti-Harper tone of the blogging and twittering apparently breaking the right wing's domination of the medium.

So something is certainly happening. But whatever the result on Monday, the same large question will be present: how to re-align the forces of the centre-left into something useful instead of a squabbling and splintered affair that a hard right-wing minority can stickhandle around at will.

Ironically, this would be easier to do if Harper actually got his majority (with a minority of voters) and thereby demonstrated the impotence of the opposition and their divisions.

Harper with carte blanche to do more of what he's doing -- ransack parliamentary process, weed out anything connected to government that doesn't conform to his ideology, trash environmental regulations, cut social programs, give more to large corporations, entrench "deep integration" with the U.S., create more electorally-driven tax havens, put prisons and militarism into overdrive, and give us the full Bush/Cheney treatment -- would no doubt concentrate the minds of the opposition parties as well as the likely 60 per cent or so of voters whose own collective intentions will have been frustrated by a fractured opposition.

If, as seems the likeliest scenario, the NDP merely replaces the Liberals as the Opposition in a Harper minority, it will be harder to bring about any kind of fusion. The NDP will presume that it is in the ascendant mode and can do it alone, while the Liberals will dig in their heels -- both attached to their traditions.

But the heady eras of Pearson/Trudeau and Tommy Douglas belong to the history books. The time has come to look to sacrifice the romantic notions and try to stem the democratic decline.

For the abused majority of voters, the likely chore starting next week will be not just trying to restrain a right-wing -- majority or minority -- government from doing its worst, but beating together the heads of the obtuse minority parties they voted for. Or, put another way, the next election campaign will start Tuesday morning.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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