Don’t be fooled by all the analysts. Dalton McGuinty is king of Ontario. Whether or not he finally gets the magic 54 seats required for a formal majority, the province is his. With far and away the most seats and with a slim lead in the popular vote, why does he have to heed anything the NDP or Conservatives want?

How can he be defeated? Is there an alternative grouping that could demand to govern? Could the Hudak and Horwath forces unite to support a Tim Hudak government? Could they even dream of joining in a no-confidence motion that would force another election? All scenarios other than Mr. McGuinty ruling exactly as if he had a majority are out of the question.

Strange old Ontario. Plus ca change… However much the population changes, the economy changes, technology changes, the political culture remains the same. Old timers and political scientists know the name of that culture — it’s progressive conservatism and no one since Brampton’s bland Bill Davis, now gone for fully a quarter of a century, has ever embodied it better than Dalton McGuinty. No one loves Mr. McGuinty, or fears him, or venerates him. But there’s something reassuring and trustworthy about him.

His qualities are best expressed in juxtaposition to those of the Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will now pay the penalty for his brazen intervention in the election on the side of Mr. Hudak. With Mr. McGuinty, you feel that he’d like to do the right thing if circumstances permit, and if they don’t — if he needs to break a promise — he’ll do so only regretfully. With Mr. Harper, you always suspect that something else is going on, that he’s never telling you what he’s really planning, that he intends to sneak some of his private ideological or political agenda into his governing agenda. And in the few months since his big victory, he has already demonstrated how accurate all such concerns are.

Both Ontario’s Conservatives and NDP are spinning Thursday’s night’s results as welcome moral victories. It’s only partly true for the NDP and largely false for the Tories. For Mr. Hudak, the results are in fact a straightforward moral defeat.

The election was his to lose, and lose it he successfully did in full view of the world. He and his strategic team — according to rumors some of the nastiest of today’s generation of anti-progressive Conservatives — could not resist taking the low road. Foreign workers, sex education, chain gangs: They believed that playing to the worst of Ontario’s prejudices would vault them into power. It was both strategically dumb and morally offensive, and they now have four long years to kick themselves around the block.

At the same time, voters will have to decide what they make of today’s Americanized Conservatives as represented by Mr. Harper, Mr. Hudak and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — all men who yearn for a simpler, long-vanished society that no longer represents today’s Canada.

As for the NDP, they have made real but modest gains. Andrea Horwath’s team was highly disciplined in keeping their expectations to themselves, but they surely expected more than a handful of new seats and a larger share of the vote, and they were confident they’d hold the balance of power and emerge with real influence. The campaign’s real success was introducing a truly attractive political personality and establishing Ms. Horwath’s brand as personally more appealing than either of the men in suits she competed against.

As a neophyte, the feisty Ms. Horwath did well. But she needs to grow and become much more her own person, and she clearly has the time now and capacity to do so. Almost like Mr. Hudak, it seemed she could hardly utter a sentence without incorporating one of her party’s banal slogans. She needs to learn to communicate like a real person, which she clearly is, not like a tedious spin doctor.

She also needs to clarify what the Ontario NDP, under her leadership, brings to the political scene. As was repeatedly noted for the past month, her platform was a strange mixture of components adding up to something without real coherence. The low-balling of environmental issues was a real problem for many NDP supporters. Ms. Horwath might well be quietly relieved that the demands she apparently would have made of Mr. McGuinty as the price of keeping him in power can now quietly be shelved.

There’s a reason New Democrats call themselves social democrats — or at least I hope they still call themselves that. The language matters. It says that democracy must reign in the social field as well as the political one. It says that our goal is a more equitable and just society for all. It says that the common good is paramount and that in a world dominated by vast corporations, government is necessary to help ordinary people live in dignity and security. I’m not at all sure that the platform that Ms. Horwath pushed in this campaign reflected those values. And if that’s not what the NDP now stands for, then what’s its purpose?

But for now, it’s Mr. McGuinty’s Ontario and he’s welcome to it. Governing is always many times harder than anyone expects it to be, and it’s never been harder than now. Maybe that’s why fewer than half of all citizens bothered to vote on Thursday — a new record to be ashamed of.

As the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon accurately reflects, the world economic system has been wrecked largely by the antics of a tiny minority with incomprehensible wealth and power, and now it apparently needs to be fixed on the backs of all the rest of us. The elite insists there’s no money left for governments, yet they have it, scads of it, since in many ways the world has never been wealthier than at this moment. But none of this wealth seems available for the public good. Mr. McGuinty presides over this system and belongs to it. Mr. Hudak and his ilk promote it enthusiastically. That leaves Ms. Horwath’s NDP to try to help fix it.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...