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Canadians to vote June 28

By Associated Press
Published May 24, 2004

OTTAWA - Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin called general elections for June 28 on Sunday; but he faces a much tougher test than expected six months ago, when he took office on his predecessor's retirement.

Martin, who took over for Jean Chretien in December, was supposed to romp to victory, but recent polls suggest support for his Liberal Party is teetering between gaining majority or minority status.

Spending scandals and unpopular Liberal governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, which contain some 70 percent of the country's 31-million people, have rocked Martin's reputation earned as the finance minister who eliminated the federal deficit in the mid 1990s.

Martin doesn't have to call an election now, as there is still more than a year left in Chretien's term. But Martin has wanted to gain his own mandate from Canadians.

He announced the polling date in a 10-minute speech after emerging from a meeting with Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson at her residence. As the representative of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, Clarkson is the one who dissolves Parliament to allow the election.

The Liberals have governed Canada since 1993, and some polls suggest rising support for Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper could stick Canada with a minority government. Under that scenario, the Liberals would get the most seats in Parliament, but would need other party support to pass legislation.

In his first speech on the campaign trail Sunday, Martin told Canadians in Ottawa that the election would turn on whether to retain Canada's social safety net.

He sniped at Harper, saying his plan to reduce taxes to lower than those in the United States would have grave consequences.

"You cannot have a health care system like Canada's, you can't have social programs like Canada's, with taxation levels like those of the United States," Martin said.

Other major election themes include improving defense spending, helping city infrastructure, and scrutinizing the financial credibility of the government in the wake of a $72-million scandal over government advertising and a staggering $700-million cost overrun on implementing a national gun registry.

The Canadian military is still crippled by budget reductions of about one-quarter during the 1990s, when then-Finance Minister Martin cut costs as part of his plan to balance the budget.

Canada has now had balanced budgets for seven years in a row, longer than any other G-8 country, but it faces pressures from inside and abroad to restore funding for foreign troop deployments, such as in Afghanistan and Haiti, to strengthen border security and to join the U.S. missile defense program.

There are also cross-border issues with the United States that will contribute to the election debate: a ban on Canadian beef in the United States due to outbreaks of mad cow disease, a longstanding dispute over softwood lumber sales - and to a lesser extent, pot laws and gay marriage.

Martin has striven to improve relations with the United States after his predecessor, Jean Chretien, refused to send troops to Iraq and one of his aides called President Bush a "moron." Martin had positive meetings with Bush in Mexico in January and in Washington in April.

Martin also faces drooping support in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec, where the separatist Bloc Quebecois Party has nearly twice the support of the Liberals, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll.

The prime minister said a vote for the separatists would isolate the province and help "lead Quebec out of Canada."

Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe campaigned on Sunday in Montreal, calling for the removal of "obstacles and intrusion from Ottawa" in Quebec affairs.

The major parties have shied away from the issue of legalizing gay marriage because polls show Canadians are almost equally divided on the issue.

Currently, the Liberals have 168 seats, the Conservatives have 73, the Bloc Quebecois has 33, the leftist New Democratic Party has 14, and there are nine independents and four vacant seats.

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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