As we swing into the final days of the 2011 federal election campaign, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has offered up some misleading, even false interpretations of our system of government — if the constitution of Canada is anything to go by. Voters have a right to expect those competing for jobs as MPs (and especially those seeking the office of prime minister) to know the basic rules and conventions of an 800-year tradition that has guided British-derived Westminster parliamentary systems throughout most of the Commonwealth. With the government of the country at stake, it is worth unpacking a few of Stephen Harper’s key claims.

For a start, Mr. Harper repeatedly asserts that he “won” the last two elections, that he has a “mandate” from Canadians to govern, and that whoever gets “the most seats” in this election has the exclusive right to form a government. On the question of “winning” the last two elections by getting “the most seats”, consider the fact, for example, that in the 2006 election the Conservatives appealed to only 36.3 per cent of the 64.7 per cent of voters who cast a ballot.

In 2008 the Conservatives got only 37.6 per cent of the votes cast by only 59 per cent of those eligible who actually voted. So the Conservatives attracted just over one-third of the votes of the under two-thirds of the electorate who voted. In hard numbers, they got 5,204,468 votes nationally, whereas 8,624,988 Canadians voted for other parties. This means that 62 per cent — close to two-thirds — of those who voted actually cast their ballots against Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. And if we count the rest of the eligible electorate, the 41 per cent who did not vote for the Conservatives either (or for anybody else), Mr. Harper’s claim to have “won” the election and thus have “a mandate from the Canadian people” is a bit of a stretch. He is entitled to claim a rather slender minority of support in fact. It is hardly a “mandate from the people” when 78 per cent of the approximately 23 million voters did not vote for your party.

So how did Mr. Harper get to form two consecutive minority governments? By gift of the outdated design of the parliamentary system, of course! Because of our first-past-the-post (FPTP, aka single-member plurality) electoral system, a candidate needs only to secure a plurality of the votes in a riding — that is, more than any other single candidate — to win. S/he need not win a majority (over 50 per cent) of the votes. Depending on how many candidates run in a riding, it is possible to win a seat even though the vast majority vote for other candidates. In fact, successful candidates are seldom elected by a majority of voters in their riding.

Because of the FPTP system, the votes-to-seats ratio is seriously distorted. In the 2006 election, Conservative candidates managed to get more votes than any other single candidate in 124 ridings, which is 40 per cent of the 308 seats in Parliament. The system over-rewarded them as they only won 36.3 per cent of the vote nationally.

In 2008, it was even more skewed: the Conservatives got pluralities in 143 ridings, which over-rewarded their 37.6 per cent of the national vote with 46.4 per cent of the seats. Note that an increase of only 1.3 per cent more votes since 2006 translated to an extra 19 seats (or 6 per cent more of the 308 seats). The Liberals got 26 per cent of the vote, but only 24.6 per cent of the seats. The Bloc Quebecois’s 10 per cent share of the vote similarly over-rewarded that Quebec-only party with 16 per cent of the seats (50). The NDP, who won 18 per cent of the votes nationally were significantly under-represented with only 12 per cent of the seats. Finally, bringing up the rear was the Green Party, which won no seats despite winning the votes of 940,000 Canadians. Among the many disparities to note here, the Conservatives got approximately twice as many votes as the NDP (5,204,468 to 2,516,935), but almost four times as many seats.

The Liberal Party has benefited the most from these distortions in the votes-to-seats ratio which allowed it to govern for 69 years in the 20th century, and half of this century so far. The first-past-the-post system is really designed for a two-party parliament. It is far less suited to a multi-party context, as our own experience has shown since the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois, which has taken 50 seats or more in every election since 1993. The Conservatives are now the chief beneficiaries of the outdated electoral system because of their regional concentration in the west. Parties whose support is more evenly spread out across the country — the NDP and the Green Party — are penalized by the system.

The distortions in the electoral system explain why the Conservatives detest the idea of proportional representation (PR), the preferred system in most countries in the world. The basic principle of PR is that the number of seats a party wins should be roughly proportional to its share of the popular vote. Although there are several different forms of it, if we had a basic PR system in Canada, the Conservatives would have 115 seats instead of 143, the Liberals 80 instead of 76, the Bloc 32 rather than 50, the NDP 56 instead of 37, while the Green Party would have earned 21 seats instead of none. This Parliament would have represented the preferences of Canadians much more accurately, even after taking into account the fact that many were obliged to vote strategically to keep the Conservatives from getting a majority. Controlling only 37 per cent of the seats would have forced Stephen Harper to run a very different kind of government — a co-operative one.

When Mr. Harper says that “the party that won the most seats” gets to form the government, even a minority of the seats, it is meant to sound as if that is the only legitimate party with a right to govern. But nowhere in the Westminster system does any party have a right to form a government. The convention is that the governor-general first calls upon the leader of the party which won more seats than any other, but if that leader cannot command the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, the governor-general is at liberty to call upon one who can. In the Westminster system we each vote for an MP in our local riding, and collectively we elect a parliament, not a government, and certainly not a prime minister. It is Parliament that effectively chooses the government and the prime minister when a majority of elected MPs (of one or more parties) agree to support a particular leader.

Unless a party gets a majority of seats — which Stephen Harper never has – any one of the other leaders could be prime minister. Not only is this perfectly acceptable, it is a fail-safe in how the system is designed. It prevents the need for yet another election if a minority government cannot command the support of a majority of MPs to get bills passed.

Mr. Harper’s current (clairvoyant) claim is that unless he gets a majority this time, the Opposition parties will form an illegitimate coalition — a “coup d’etat” as he called it in 2008, when the opposition parties representing the majority of voters were about to bring down his government because his budget failed to address the economic crisis. To prevent them forming a power-sharing coalition, he shut down Parliament and the democratic process so he could hold on to power, but he did not call that a coup. Nor was a coalition a coup when he was advocating forming a Conservative-led one to foil the Liberals as early as 1996/97, not to mention in 2004 when he actually signed such an agreement with the very “socialists” and “separatists” he is now denouncing as illegitimate coalition partners for the Liberals.

Again, there is simply no constitutional support for Mr. Harper’s current position that coalitions are illegitimate. Canada has had two important coalition governments federally — in 1867, the “Great Coalition” actually produced Confederation by uniting the colonies into the dominion of Canada — and another in 1917 during the First World War. There have also been coalition provincial governments in Manitoba, B.C., and Ontario.

Indeed, if anyone should know whether coalitions are legitimate in the Westminster system, you would think it would be the British. The mother of all Parliaments, the United Kingdom, is governed by a coalition right now, between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. There has not been a coup. No tanks have been spotted rumbling towards Westminster Palace, only the Royal carriages rehearsing for next week’s wedding. The sky has not fallen. They are getting on with things.

Still, Mr. Harper claims that “Canadians will not tolerate a coalition.” Yet he does not speak for “Canadians”, as demonstrated by the recent Ipsos Reid poll which shows that 54 per cent would prefer a Liberal-NDP coalition government over a Conservative majority government (46 per cent). What is the difference between a coalition and the ad hoc support from the other parties Mr. Harper has actually relied upon to keep his two minority governments in power over the last five years? A coalition is a formal agreement that involves power-sharing, where members of the parties involved are Cabinet Ministers and must agree on a set of policies that represent more people’s interests. Coalitions require maturity, the spirit of cooperation and compromise. They are in many ways more democratic even than majority governments in our system, which usually means a party gets a majority of the seats with only a minority of the popular vote, typically around 40 per cent.

Why should the views and interests of the majority of voters be shut out except at election time when their votes suddenly count? Coalitions in fact make sure that all of our voices count all of the time. The prospect of cooperation and compromise is only frightening to those who wish to impose the will of the few onto the many. That is why we are in the current election — because Mr. Harper has behaved as if he has a majority government, shutting out the interests of the majority of Canadians who are actually represented by the opposition parties.

The falsehoods repeated daily by Mr. Harper, just like his attempts to do things like ban gay marriage and reform the Senate despite Charter rights and constitutional rules, show a disturbing lack of understanding of and respect for the Canadian constitution. We have to wonder, is it honest ignorance or a more sinister misrepresentation of the facts in a desperate bid to hold on to power? If it is the former, I am sure any university would be happy to let Mr. Harper and members of his government take a few courses on the Canadian system of government. If the latter, thankfully Canadians still have the right to vote them out on Monday.

Professor Radha Jhappan teaches in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.