Canada to decide its direction
Polls show a conservative leader leads the scandal-tarred current government in today's election for prime minister and the House of Commons.
By wire services
Published January 23, 2006
TORONTO - Unless every national poll is amiss, what has been perhaps the world's winningest political party is heading for a humiliating defeat today.
Canadians will vote today for a new leader and House of Commons, and Stephen Harper, 46, an economist and social conservative, appears poised to lead his Conservative Party to victory over Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party, something that seemed highly improbable just a few weeks ago. The Liberals won the past four national elections, governing Canada for 13 years - as the party did for three-quarters of the past century.
Though voters also will be considering candidates from the leftist New Democratic Party, French-speaking separatist Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party of environmentalists, the battle is largely between Harper and Martin.
Whether a Harper victory would represent a seismic shift in a country that has long promoted itself as a beacon of social democracy and frequent critic of American foreign policy remains an open question. If he cannot muster a majority in the House of Commons, Harper may lead a weak, unstable government opposed by three left-of-center parties represented in Parliament.
Harper - in a campaign largely free of ideology - promised to cut the national sales tax, grant families child care for preschoolers and introduce mandatory prison sentences. A longtime member of the House of Commons, representing Alberta, he has a conservative record but steered clear in recent months of promising major changes to the national health insurance program.
Harper even noted that judges appointed by Liberal governments and an appointed Senate filled with Liberals would serve as checks on his power.
"I'm basically a cautious person," Harper said in a recent speech. "I believe it's better to light one candle than to promise a million light bulbs."
A change in Ottawa would almost certainly bring, at the least, a warming of relations with Washington, which have been strained since the American-led invasion of Iraq and have worsened over a series of recent trade disputes and Canadian moves to soften domestic drug laws.
Harper, while careful not to appear overly supportive of President Bush, has suggested he would reconsider Canada's refusal to join the U.S. missile defense program.
Martin, 67, has trumpeted the eight consecutive budget surpluses under Liberal Party rule and sought to paint Harper as a right-winger posing as a moderate to woo mainstream voters. He claims Harper supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq and would try to outlaw abortions and overturn Canada's marriage rights for gays and lesbians - all of which Harper denies.
Martin has promised to create a national child care program, expand aid grants to college students and ban handguns.
Martin's government and the 308-member House of Commons were dissolved in November after New Democrats defected from the governing coalition to join the Conservatives in a no-confidence vote.
The opposition said the Liberals no longer had the moral authority to govern, pointing to a party debacle in which several members were accused of misspending millions of dollars from a national unity fund, prompting a federal inquiry and several indictments.
Even after being forced to dissolve Parliament, Martin remained ahead in the polls and relatively popular with Canadians, who applauded his moves to legalize gay marriage nationwide and stand up to Washington on security and trade issues.
But the Liberals' numbers began slipping after a teenage girl was killed by a stray bullet in downtown Toronto while shopping on Dec. 26. Harper quickly responded with a platform that was tough on crime and promised stricter measures to keep illegal guns from being smuggled across the U.S. border.
The Liberals' popularity slipped even more this month when it was revealed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were investigating a possible leak by Liberal government officials that may have influenced the stock market.
Various national polls in the final days of the campaign showed the Conservatives about 10 percentage points ahead of the Liberals, but the Conservatives still could fail to win a majority in the House of Commons.
Harper leads a party that only three years ago merged a very conservative Canadian Alliance party with the much more moderate Progressive Conservatives.
"There are different factions and backgrounds and points of view in the Conservative coalition," noted Desmond Morton, a McGill University historian.
It will not be easy to manage the factions, he said.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.