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Down to Wire for Canada's Liberals and Conservatives

Parliament is likely to have no dominant faction. Small parties may play kingmaker.

June 28, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

OTTAWA — Canada's election race is so tight, nobody can predict which party will win today's vote: the newly revived Conservatives or the foundering Liberals. But whichever comes up on top, incumbent Prime Minister Paul Martin, head of the Liberal Party, seems to have been the campaign's big loser.

Since taking office in December in a wave of popular support and high expectations, Martin has seen his popularity dissolve, dogged by a financial scandal and unfulfilled promises on taxes and healthcare.

His Conservative challenger, Stephen Harper, has capitalized on Martin's leadership failure and the merger of two small conservative parties to form the larger one, a bloc strong enough to pose a challenge to the long-ruling Liberals.

On the eve of the election, several polls showed Martin and Harper neck and neck, each with about 32% of the vote. The rest is divided between two smaller parties, the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois and the left-of-center New Democratic Party.

With neither party likely to gain a majority, the winner will have to court the other players to gain control of Parliament -- and then will have the challenge of trying to rule firmly despite a divided government.

The likely result is political uncertainty, and perhaps paralysis. Neither of the smaller parties makes a natural ally for the Liberals or the Conservatives. Both the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois oppose any move to edge closer to the Bush administration, particularly Martin's willingness to help back an American missile defense system. Both want Canada to stand up to Washington on trade issues, such as U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber. And both boast much stronger support for progressive social policies such as same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana.

Jack Layton, leader of the New Democrats and suddenly a probable kingmaker, is playing hard to get. "Paul Martin's claims of a common agenda with the NDP have no credibility," he said recently on the campaign trail.

The irony of the tightest race in decades is that Martin brought it on himself. Riding high six months ago as a fresh, progressive successor after three-term Liberal leader Jean Chretien stepped down, Martin pledged to call quick elections to show that he had a mandate from the people.

Martin had proved himself a canny finance minister under Chretien, reversing a deep deficit and streamlining the healthcare system. But he has become tainted by a financial scandal in which Ottawa spent millions of dollars on a public relations campaign to undercut Quebec's move to secede, and thousands of dollars were siphoned off along the way. He has denied personal involvement.

There is also mounting voter anger over unfulfilled promises of shorter waits for national healthcare despite rising premiums, postponed pledges for better child care and a growing sense of faltering leadership.

Harper, an economist from Alberta who reentered politics only three years ago, is certainly sounding different themes. A vote for a Liberal government cutting "dirty deals" to form a coalition is a vote for "corruption, taxation and frustration all in one administration," he said Sunday.

Harper has said that he would have supported Washington in the Iraq invasion. He says he would promote deeper economic integration with the U.S. and would abandon the Kyoto accord aimed at reducing "greenhouse gases." The Conservatives would challenge abortion laws and might also roll back recognition of gay marriage.

Although Harper's popularity has jumped to equal Martin's in the 35-day campaign, analysts say it does not necessarily signal a shift on social issues. Rather, it may be a desire for change -- or even revenge.

"The Liberals are tired, and we are tired of their broken promises," said John Thompson, a computer administrator in central Ottawa, where the traditionally Liberal sector is leaning toward the Conservative candidate. "We want someone who will live up to what they promise."

In an effort to gain support, Martin crisscrossed the country Sunday, sowing fear about policy reversals under a Conservative government and urging people not to split the Liberal vote by casting their ballot for the New Democrats.

"Every single seat counts," Martin said.

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