Okay, I'm sorry if you're one of the Americans who followed me during last night's leadership debate. In case you were wondering what the hell's going on, I'm pleased to present a primer on Canadian federal politics for you, so you too can follow in the fun-filled democratic process in "America's hat". I don't know what kind of country you are to wear a hat that's bigger than all of you, but hey.
Canada has a constitutional monarchy that uses a bicameral parliament in which only one house is elected via direct election using a first-past-the-post system, and the other house is appointed but is mostly ceremonial. If you understand this sentence, I'm pleased to know that you've taken some political science courses! You can stop reading now and interpret the news on your own.
Alright, now that all the political scientists have stopped reading, I can really explain what's going on.
Much like the United States, Canada has a federal legislature with two groupings, similar to America's Congress with the House of Representatives and the Senate. Canada's upper house is called the Senate as well, but our lower house is called the House of Commons, in British tradition. Much like America's Representatives, our Members of Parliament are elected from individual districts (or as we call them, ridings).
Canadians, however, don't vote for Senate or President. In Canada, the executive power that Americans know as the President is actually held by the Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II. Through a great deal of ceremony, the Queen actually has no power other than being a figurehead, and she doesn't do anything in person here. She actually has a representative, the Governor General, who is Canada's de jure head of state most of the time. The current Governor General is David Johnston. Governor Generals are nominated by the sitting Prime Minister, and unless something is horrendously wrong, the Queen approves. They serve "At Her Majesty's pleasure", but usually for a single five-year term. The Governor General does the sorts of things your President does on the international scale (go to meetings, host charities, go to funerals and weddings on behalf of Canada), but without any actual governance responsibility. This frees up government to govern.
So you're probably asking yourself "If Canada's 'President' doesn't actually govern, who is in charge?" That's a really fair question. The answer is our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Canada is technically the chief adviser to the Queen/Governor General, but they are the de facto head of state. The Prime Minister is simply the leader of the dominant party in the House of Commons. Currently, it's Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party of Canada.
The technical process is simple. After looking at the result of an election, the Governor General must approach the party that won the most seats in the House of Commons and ask them to form a government. This party can then consolidate their position, appoint a Cabinet, and attempt to pass laws. If they have a majority of seats (155 of 308) they can then do so with ease. If they do not have a majority, then governing gets a little more difficult.
The United States only has two parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The two parties are generally ideologically opposed to each other, though they are fragmented within (IE, the Republican Party has the Tea Party within it, moving it more conservative on some issues, while the Democratic Party has "Blue Dog" Democrats who move the party to the right in some cases as well). Canada currently has five major federal parties, of which four have representation in the House of Commons. These five parties are the reason why minority governance has been the norm in Canada for the last 9 years, and probably will continue.
A minority government is a government that doesn't have a majority in the House of Commons, as previously noted. This means that some of the other Members of Parliament have to vote for bills the primary party wants to pass. Because the process of a bill becoming law is usually "rubber-stamped" through the Senate and the Governor General's office, the House of Commons is almost always where the real work happens. Because Canada has so many parties, the vote is often split to the point where nobody can attain the 155 seats required to make a majority government. When a minority government can't pass a "confidence issue", such as a budget, the government falls and Canada has an election. That is what has occurred here - the Conservative government was defeated by a motion that stated Parliament had lost confidence in the government, and as a result, the Prime Minister was forced to request an election from the Governor General. This is normal, if slightly exasperating.
Now, I'm going to give you a primer on Canadian federal political parties, in alphabetical order:
Leader: Gilles Duceppe
Seats in last Parliament: 47/308
Positions: The Bloq Quebecois was formed in the 1993 election out of the remains of the old Progressive Conservative Party that fragmented in that year. The BQ is dedicated to one goal: Quebec independence and sovereignty. As a result, they are a regional party that, while technically centre-left, votes almost entirely based on what they perceive to be good for Quebec. The presence of the BQ has meant that federal governments must give concessions to Quebec in the form of many things, such as federal health and equalization funding. Since Canada has had minority government and the BQ generally controls about 45-50 seats, the BQ has had considerable ability to achieve its tasks in the last three parliaments.
Leader: Stephen Harper
Seats in last Parliament: 143/308
Positions: The Conservative Party is exactly what you would expect. Since the 1993 election, the conservative movement in Canada had to reform. The Progressive Conservative party splintered and went through a series of coaliscing into the new Conservative party, which is a bona-fide right-wing party (though still fairly more liberal than most American Democrats). The Conservatives support mandatory crime sentences, scrapping the federal gun registry, and lower taxes on corporations and the rich. The leader, Stephen Harper, is generally considered the best politician in Canada, and the party has been elected to two straight minority governments where they have pushed along some of their agenda, but not all.
Leader: Elizabeth May
Seats in last Parliament: 0/308
Positions: The Green Party is a far-left party that is part of the international Green Movement. While currently without any seats in Parliament, the Greens amassed 7% of the vote in the previous election. They favour environmental responsibility, social justice, non-violence, and electoral reform towards a proportional representation system. Elizabeth May was not allowed entrance into the leadership debates because her party is not currently represented in Parliament, though some experts think the Greens will finally break into Parliament with this election.
Leader: Michael Ignatieff
Seats in last Parliament: 77/308
Positions: Canada's Liberal Party is the centre-left party that has been the dominant political party in Canada over the last century. The Liberal Party is generally in favour of reasonable taxation and reasonable expenses, and currently support a minor corporate tax hike in return for greater investment in education and health care. The Liberals have also taken on green energy quite seriously, and would reform the Canadian Pension Plan.
New Democratic Party
Leader: Jack Layton
Seats in last Parliament: 36/308
Positions: Having grown out of the social democratic/social credit movement of the 1930s-50s, the New Democratic Party was long Canada's third party, and had its greatest success cooperating with the Pearson Liberals of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this guise, the NDP championed Medicare, and their then-leader Tommy Douglas (grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame) has since been named the Greatest Canadian for ensuring health care was extended to all Canadians. The NDP hasn't changed much: as a left-wing party they champion social equality for gender and sexual orientation, higher corporate taxes, less foreign military intervention, and organized labour. Jack Layton is the second-longest serving party leader, and under him, the NDP have seen some of their greatest successes.
So, there's a little introduction for you. If you have any questions, hit me up in the comments, on Twitter, or via email, and I'll be happy to answer any additional questions!