In Canada we vote with pencils. A voter marks an X on a paper ballot. Poll workers are supplied with backup pencils and a grade-school-issue sharpener to handle equipment problems, and at the end of Election Day they count the ballots by hand, in full view of witnesses. Disputes are rare. This is in sharp contrast to the complicated American way of democracy, with its hanging chads in Florida, dubious software systems in Ohio, and armies in Iraq. But it turns out that you can still fuck things up with a pencil.

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We had an election January 23, and wound up with a conservative asshole as our prime minister (that's Canadian for "president"). Stephen Harper won. Stephen Harper is prime minister. All hail Stephen Harper.

Most Canadians hate Harper—his party got just over a third of the popular vote—because he's threatening to reverse the progressive things our country has done lately. Harper is against same-sex marriage, he doesn't like the Kyoto agreement, and he wants tougher laws against marijuana.

And naturally he is an anti-tax zealot, with no inhibitions about weakening universal health care or other government programs that make up Canada's beloved social safety net. It's as if the 46-year-old never got over Thatcherism, which makes sense: England's war on the poor would have been the hot new theory when Harper was in university studying economics.

Our new prime minister is so far out of step with today's Canada that he earns the ultimate Canadian insult: Stephen Harper is pro-America. He supports Bush's war on Iraq, and was embarrassed when Canada refused to join. He ends his speeches by saying "God bless Canada," a jarring phrase to Canuck ears. Where our last two prime ministers were famous (in Canada) for not getting along with Bush, Harper quickly got a "welcome to the club" call from the White House. He's a Republican who got lost on the wrong side of the border.

And what's a guy like this doing running a politically progressive country like Canada?

Ironically, the fact that Canada is politically progressive helped Harper. Voters had four credible left-leaning parties to choose from in this election, and scattered their votes accordingly. Harper was the lone option of the right-wing minority, and his Conservative Party was working off its strong base in the province of Alberta, an oil-rich cultural backwater with a chip on its shoulder. (Think Texas, but colder.)

Harper couldn't have run a better campaign. He got a makeover to come across as more statesman than rabid ideologue, and effectively muzzled Conservative candidates to prevent flare-ups of racism or homophobia outside his media bubble. Meanwhile, the wheels completely fell off the ruling Liberal Party (we call them like we see them in Canada), which was dogged by financial scandals and over-confidence.

It could have been worse. Early opinion polls showed Harper in the lead, then way out front. But as much as Canadians wanted to punish the Liberals, when it came down to marking that X on the ballot, we didn't want to punish the country, too. Thanks to our quirky parliamentary system, Harper ended up a prime minister who's not exactly in charge. The Conservatives have the most representatives of any party in our House of Commons, yet with just 124 seats out of 308—none of them from Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal—they don't have a majority. Three other parties, and a radio host who ran as an independent, share the balance of power.

The way the numbers work, Harper needs help to get any bills passed. The Conservatives + the left-wing New Democrats + the radio host = a majority. Or the Conservatives + the left-wing Bloc Quebecois. Or the Conservatives + the Liberals—who received little more than a slap on the wrist for their sins and came in a strong second. Notice the common thread of the Conservatives depending on the left, where most Canadians voted.

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So if you're thinking about a visit to Canada, either for a weekend or a Bush-free rest of your life, don't be put off by the Conservative victory. Hobbled by a coalition government, Harper can't revoke same-sex marriage, or start a draft, or do whatever other crazy shit he'd like. It's also doubtful he can keep his party members silent about their real opinions. As soon as they open their mouths, the next election won't be such a close call.

Kyle Shaw is editor of the Coast, a weekly in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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