OTTAWA -- As was the case in the 2019 campaign, at this point in the race based on polling, a majority government may be out of reach for both the Liberal and Conservative parties. So what are the potential minority government scenarios Canada could be facing?

There are a few scenarios that could unfold, but first it’s important to establish that there is no hard rule book for how these post-election talks can go, just historical convention and precedent.

Parliament has 338 seats, so in order to win a majority government a party needs to elect 170 or more MPs. This secures their ability to pass all key measures without needing another party’s support and sets up for four years of governing.

Heading into the 2021 campaign the Liberals held 155 seats, the Conservatives had 119, the NDP held 24, the Bloc Quebecois had 32, the Green Party had two seats, there were five Independents and one vacancy.

In the event that no one wins a majority of the seats, things could go a few different ways.

Before getting into the various scenarios, here’s a brief explainer on minority governments and coalitions:

  • What is a minority government? When the party with the most seats, but not a majority of them, tries to govern and maintain the confidence of the House by relying on cross-party agreements or vote-by-vote support to get the votes needed on key issues and bills in order to be able to advance policy. There have been several examples in the past, including three since 2000.
  • What is a coalition government? When parties join forces to hold a larger share of seats than any other party. This can include formal agreements where the cabinet includes members from both, or all, parties depending on how many team up. Extremely rare in Canada, a coalition government has not been formed federally in modern political times.

Here’s a brief synopsis of where the party leaders stand on minority or coalition potentialities:

  • Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau: He went to the polls in hopes of four years of majority reign so it’s no surprise another minority outcome would be a blow to Trudeau and potentially his team’s desires to see him continue to lead the party. Speaking on Sept. 10 following the final leaders’ debate about what a change in government would mean, he defended calling the election, imploring Canadians to take this as an opportunity to be decisive about who they want shaping the future, suggesting that his vision won’t be supported in a minority. And just as a notable political history factoid: As a backbench MP, he was part of the failed 2008 coalition attempt between the Liberals and NDP with support from the Bloc Quebecois.
  • Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole: In the lead up to and during this campaign O’Toole has sought to frame the vote as a choice for Canadians between a left-leaning coalition of parties, or the Conservatives. He has pointed to the previous minority as evidence of the Bloc, NDP, and Greens supporting the Liberals. Asked on Sept. 10 whether he could commit to collaborating with other parties to keep the next Parliament alive for four full years, O'Toole suggested he’s interested in working together with other parties, if it is on his plan for the pandemic recovery.
  • NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: He has been campaigning on making the case that his party is a viable option to form government but with current polling and the number of seats he’d need to secure, that outcome appears unlikely at this stage. The NDP were the most reliable source of support for the Liberals in the 43rd Parliament, propping them up on several occasions. Singh has been asked repeatedly if he’d offer the same backing to the Conservatives. He hasn’t explicitly shot it down other than saying the two parties have “nothing in common.”
  • Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: While she does not have a seat in the House of Commons, her caucus has supported the Liberal minority on key votes in the last Parliament and throughout this campaign has spoken about the need for all sides to do better at working together. The degree to which a governing party would need to find ways to collaborate with the Greens in the next Parliament depends on how many seats the party holds after Sept. 20.
  • Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet: He has said he isn't interested in teaming up with anyone in a coalition, but as was the case in the last Parliament, he would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to support various initiatives proposed by a minority government. As of the Sept. 9 debate, Blanchet was clear that he hopes it is a minority government that takes shape, regardless of whether it was Liberal or Conservative-led.

And here’s how it could all play out:

Liberals look to govern

In our political system, the incumbent party is largely seen to have the first right to attempt to continue governing after an election, even if they don’t win the most seats.

That’s right: Just because a party wins the most seats in an election, it doesn’t mean they automatically will form the next government.

So, if the seat count is close but the Conservatives win more, Trudeau could opt to not accept defeat and take the first chance to test the confidence of the House of Commons.

This would see Trudeau, who would still be the prime minister, reconvening MPs for a new session of Parliament. There, he’d present a Speech from the Throne and this would be the first and key confidence vote he’d need to pass.

If he secured the confidence of the House with that vote he can continue to govern—albeit likely amid some considerable contention. And if not, and MPs decide it is time for a change, he’s out and all eyes would turn to the Tories.

In a minority, there is no formal power-sharing agreement and the governing party just needs to ensure they secure enough votes on key issues or bills to stay alive.

If the Liberals win the most seats, expect a similar path as was taken in 2019: Trudeau forges ahead, looking to lock in support on a vote-by-vote basis.

The prospect of avoiding a pandemic election may have been a motivating factor for the opposition parties to prop up the Liberals over the last while, but now it could be an option for Trudeau to appeal to the progressive parties to keep that support going to prevent a Conservative government.

Conservatives look to govern

If the Conservatives win the most seats but not a majority, they will likely push to be given the opportunity to form government, but given the convention that the sitting prime minister gets the first shot, unless it’s a clear Conservative victory and Trudeau concedes, the Conservatives wouldn’t be given the chance until after the Liberals tried and failed.

If they are given a chance to govern as a minority, it would roll along in the same way described for the Liberals above, needing to secure opposition backing to stay afloat. A motivating factor could be that if party coffers are wiped out after this race, allowing the Conservatives time to lead would also allow them to replenish their bank accounts ahead of another election.

It’s also in this scenario that a possible coalition could form among the more left-leaning parties in an effort to combine to hold the most seats and thwart a Conservative government, on some sort of agreement for moving ahead more progressive policies. A coalition was attempted, unsuccessfully, just weeks after the 2008 election by the Liberals and NDP with Bloc support, and was largely seen as a power-grab.

It would be in this kind of a situation—naming a new government— where Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon might play a bigger role. It’s the GG’s discretion to determine who is reasonably expected to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons, or to discern what happens after confidence is lost and who might get the next crack at forming government.

However if all above avenues are explored unsuccessfully there is another option.

Canadians head back to the polls

It’s true, Canadians could be faced with another election campaign all over again.

How soon that could happen is very much an open question. A few things to keep in mind: Party standings can fluctuate. If a member is removed from caucus for one reason or another, crosses the floor, resigns their seat, or dies, then the balance of who holds the firmest grip on power could evolve over time.

If the situation is unstable enough that no one manages to hold together a government, or that all attempts are futile, then it may be back to the polls in hopes of a more decisive result.