Last week the pundits were saying that it was a two-man race for the leadership of the federal Liberal party of Canada. The election that would decide who was going to lead the party back from the wilderness of opposition in the next campaign against Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada did come down to being a race between two men, just not the two men everyone was predicting.
While former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff's name was on the final ballot of the evening, his competition, and the eventual winner of the night, was not Bob Rae, the ex-socialist premier of Ontario, but Stephane Dion, the former Montreal political science professor. Going into the weekend's vote Dion was considered a long shot who at best might finish in third place.
After Saturday's first ballot everything looked to be playing out according to the script. Ignatieff was leading Rae by around 500 votes, and Dion squeaked into third just two votes in front of the fourth place Gerald Kennedy. The second ballot did nothing much to change the standings, and that's when the serious deal-making began behind the scenes which would see the beginning of the push that put Dion over the top.
With the person finishing last on each ballot being forced to drop out, Kennedy knew that he would be done after the third ballot, so instead of waiting for the inevitable, he announced his withdrawal and threw his support and that of his delegates behind Mr. Dion. Not only did it give Mr. Dion a boost in terms of votes, it also brought him the intangible support of Justine Trudeau. The charismatic son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is the man many have anointed as the leader of the future and he is beginning to attract a substantial following among the youth wing of the party.
This was enough of a swing in momentum and votes for Dion to take the lead after the third ballot. Still short of the majority needed to win the day, with Bob Rae having to drop out as the lowest vote getter, Dion's victory began to look like a reality. Even Ignatieff's people said later that they couldn't see their man coming back on the fourth ballot to overtake Dion.
What's surprising is how few people took Dion's campaign seriously. He had been a cabinet minister in John Chretien's government, dealing with the tricky portfolio of intergovernmental affairs and being the government's point man in the fight against Quebec Nationalism. He stayed in the cabinet when Paul Martin took over as leader and Prime Minister, and became the federal Minister of the Environment, meaning he was responsible for trying to ensure Canada's compliance with the Kyoto accord.
But in spite of this extensive experience in government, most weren't prepared to give him a chance because of a decided lack of charisma and questions surrounding his ability to win in Quebec where he had alienated the nationalists. But Quebec nationalists don't vote in the Liberal leadership convention (in fact they don't vote Liberal at all so I can't see how it matters that he has alienated them) so their impact wasn't felt in the final tally.
In the end it came down to too many people who couldn't bring themselves to trust Ignatieff due mainly to his support of the war in Iraq, and his equivocations over the issue of torture. An early indication that those positions might haunt him was the huge ovation that greeted a mention of former Prime Minister Chretien's decision to keep Canadian troops out of the Iraqi conflict.
On the final ballot runoff between the two men, it was almost no contest as Dion easily captured the majority of the vote to finally bring the contest to its final conclusion. Almost immediately the naysayers were out in force proclaiming a variety of reasons why he wouldn't be able to win an election. Everything from the fact that he was the Liberal party's third Quebec leader in row to the thought that Quebecers wouldn't support him because he is a federalist would work against him in the upcoming election.
Of course they also said he didn't stand a chance against heavyweights like Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff, that he was too boring a speaker to hold crowds, and that nobody wanted an intellectual as leader. Whoever they are, they don't have a very good track record when it comes to predicting Stephane Dion's future.
In fact early indications are that he is going to defy the so-called experts yet again. A poll taken shortly after he was elected leader on Sunday shows that for the first time since their defeat in last January's election, the Liberals are ahead of the Conservative Party of Canada. Asked who they would vote for if an election were held today 36% favoured the Liberals, 31% the Conservatives, The New Democratic Party 14%, The Bloc Quebecois 11%, and the Green Party 7%.
Even better was the news from Quebec where 62% of those responding thought Dion was a good choice for the party. That should go a long way in erasing doubts that people have about his ability to win in Quebec. In other good new for Mr. Dion from those polling results, Allan Greg of the Strategic Council which conducted the poll, said the numbers for the Liberals were the highest in Ontario since they won in 2004.
Of course this is the bounce after the convention and it remains to be seen how long Dion can sustain those types of numbers once he settles into the day-to-day grind of parliament (although there may not be that much of break judging by his rhetoric). At one point he said point blank that the Conservative Party of Canada is too far to the right of the rest of the house to survive. As of now it looks like the Liberal party are set for any surprise election that either Stephen Harper wants to call or one they want to force.
Stephane Dion surprised everyone by winning the Liberal leadership when all considered his attempt hopeless. Currently he's riding higher in the polls than Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada and could very well be the man to lead the Liberals back to power.