This paper argues that there is an efficiency gain underlying the recent adoption of legislation calling for a fixed 4-year governing term by the federal and most provincial governments in Canada. The efficiency gain arises from foreclosing an externality produced by the Canadian constitutional provision that sets a maximum length for a legislative term (5 years) while allowing the governing party (through the Governor General) to dissolve the House early. Because the opportunistic use of surprise can improve the governing party’s probability of winning, strategic choice can lead to elections being held at times that most disadvantage the incumbent’s rivals. Evidence from Canada is introduced suggesting that federal elections became less predictable through successive reductions in the campaign time given to competitors, thus raising the cost of this externality. The same reasoning suggests that the party most likely to propose this legislative innovation will be the party in opposition rather than in power and/or the new leader of an established party facing loss in the upcoming election. By fulfilling the fixed term even when it could benefit by calling the election early, the party establishes a precedent that raises the political cost to others of cancelling the fixed term legislation.

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Keywords Discretionary election times, Fixed election dates, Institutional externalities, Time inconsistency
Persistent URL
Journal Constitutional Political Economy
Ferris, J.S, & Olmstead, D.E.H. (Derek E. H.). (2017). Fixed versus flexible election terms: explaining innovation in the timing of Canada’s election cycle. Constitutional Political Economy, 1–25. doi:10.1007/s10602-017-9237-y