TORONTO — Encouraged by a generally upbeat economy and an opposition fractured along regional and ideological lines, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Sunday called an early national election for June 2, more than a year before his term expires.
Chretien said he is calling for a vote now because he has accomplished a principal goal of his first term--reducing Canada's deficit, which was among the highest in the industrialized world when he entered office but is now nearing zero.
"We have managed to do most of what we set out to do," he told reporters in Ottawa. "The time has come to offer real choices about what kind of society we want to have in Canada for the 21st century."
Under Canada's British-style parliamentary system, Chretien could have served a full five-year term, until October 1998, before calling an election. A big lead in the polls by Chretien's centrist Liberal Party, however, appears to have made an early election irresistible.
Recent surveys have shown the Liberals with the backing of 41% to 50% of decided voters. With opposing votes split among four other parties, the Liberals are projected to match or exceed their current majority of 174 seats in the new 301-member Parliament, giving Chretien, 63, a second term.
Opposition parties stake their hopes on polls showing that as much as a quarter of the electorate is undecided and that voters are dissatisfied with the country's 9.3% unemployment rate.
Questioned Sunday about the jobless rate, Chretien noted that it stood at more than 11% when he took power and added that the stage is set for greater gains in employment. He pointed to Canada's record-low interest rates and inflation, and projections by the International Monetary Fund that the Canadian economy will grow by 3.5% this year and 3.4% in 1998, the highest rate among the world's advanced economies.
Chretien also is likely to be challenged on his strategy for fending off Quebec's separatists, who remain powerful in the French-speaking province. Although Chretien is from Quebec, he is not very popular among voters there. With another referendum on independence expected in Quebec by 2000, some political leaders question whether Chretien is the best person to carry the flag for national unity.
The separatist Bloc Quebecois, which runs only in Quebec, holds 50 of the 75 parliamentary seats from Quebec and has been designated the official opposition party in Parliament. Given the Liberals' big lead in the polls, the real battle in this election probably is over whether any of the remaining three parties can displace the Bloc Quebecois as No. 2 in the parliamentary pecking order. Each, however, faces serious obstacles.
The Progressive Conservative Party, led by Jean Charest, is trying to return from the brink of political extinction. In 1993, handicapped by widespread revulsion against former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the party won only two parliamentary seats.
Charest turns aside lingering questions about the Mulroney legacy by asserting that "this campaign is about the future, about the 21st century, not about the past."
But the Conservatives must divide the right-leaning vote with the Reform Party, which in the 1993 election emerged from western Canada as a populist protest against politics-as-usual. Since then, Reform has declined sharply in national popularity, damaged by charges of racism and intolerance and sniggers that party leader Preston Manning is an acolyte of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Manning has worked to recast the party image by tossing out a few controversial members and recruiting minority candidates in some districts. Manning even underwent a personal make-over, discarding his glasses and getting a new hairstyle.
The campaign may increase pressure on the two parties to merge or reach some other accommodation that avoids splitting the right-wing vote. Recent polls show the Conservatives in second place nationwide, slightly ahead of Reform. Each trails the Liberals badly, but their combined total would be within striking distance of the lead.
"If there is a further standoff in this election, I think it's only logical for people in both parties to think about alternatives," said Tom Flanagan, a political analyst at the University of Calgary. "You'd think they wouldn't want to go on letting the Liberals win."
Canada's leftist New Democratic Party holds only nine seats in Parliament and is struggling for recognition. The party's new leader, Alexa McDonough, has spurned calls for a move to the right and is running on a traditional big-government, high-taxes platform. Analysts say McDonough's appeal is aimed at voters who believe Canada's social programs are endangered by deficit-cutting budgets.
Relations between Canada and the United States, a major issue in the past two Canadian elections, are not expected to cause much of a ripple in this campaign. Both countries are benefiting so much from a burgeoning economic relationship that disputes over Canadian trade with Cuba and the allegations that U.S. entertainment companies are pushing Canadian firms out of their own market are considered minor.
In the 1993 campaign, Chretien criticized Mulroney for being too close to his U.S. counterpart, suggesting that this compromised Canadian independence. But earlier this month, Chretien made an official visit to Washington that the Canadian media characterized as an elaborate preelection photo opportunity showcasing the strong relationship between Chretien and President Clinton.