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Canada Shifts to Right in Election

The Conservative Party ends 13 years of Liberal dominance, but fails to win a majority.

January 24, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Canadians elected a new, conservative government Monday that is expected to edge Canada to the right politically and build closer ties to the Bush administration, marking the end of the Liberal Party's 13-year reign.

The result represents a significant shift in Canada's political scene, showing that disenchantment with the Liberal Party's scandals and unfulfilled promises has grown so widespread that voters were willing to take a chance on the right-wing party leader, Stephen Harper, a man they had judged too extreme just two years ago.

But the Conservative Party victory was well short of a landslide, and the party's failure to win a majority in the House of Commons will ensure that the country does not undergo dramatic change too quickly. Still, the new government is a symbolic change for Canadians, who traditionally have thought of their nation as a healthy rival to the American way.

Canada's election echoed the "red state/blue state" struggle to its south. Western provinces leaned toward the Conservative Party and eastern population centers generally favored the Liberals, although Conservatives made inroads. Canada's identity became a key issue in the election, with Liberals openly warning against a step toward U.S. values.

"A Harper victory will put a smile on George W. Bush's face," a Liberal ad aired late in the campaign said. "Well, at least someone will be happy, eh?"

Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin conceded to Harper after midnight, and stepped down as party leader with a strong but wistful speech about the successes of the Liberal Party's four successive terms.

"It is not easy this evening," he said. "There will be another chance, and there will be another time."

Celebrating his victory, the Conservative Party leader acknowledged the leap of faith that Canadians had made to put him in power.

"Tonight, friends, our great country has voted for change. And Canadians have asked our party to take the lead in delivering that change," said Harper, 46. "This evening, I tell Canadians: We will honor your trust, we will deliver on our commitments."

Harper's positions are closer to those of the Bush administration. Harper has said he will reconsider Canada's rejection of the U.S. missile shield, withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change to establish Canada's own environmental controls, and try to work through a bitter trade dispute over lumber.

Although he campaigned from the center -- as President Bush did when he first won the White House -- he suggested he would reexamine the legality of same-sex marriage, and is known to oppose abortion rights and to favor changing the national healthcare system.

Harper reassured wary voters, however. He emphasized his plans for tax cuts, funding for preschool child care and explicitly promised not to send troops to Iraq. That helped convince voters that a Conservative government would bring change, but not a radical restructuring of existing policies.

Martin failed to convince Canadians that his scandal-tainted party could become clean and innovative, and his campaign focused less on what he would do for Canada than on the threat he said Harper posed.

Similar scare tactics worked in the 2004 election, helping the Liberals pull off a last-minute upset. But Martin was newly in power then, and represented the possibility of change to many voters. A former finance minister, Martin turned the country's economy around and kept it strong as prime minister, but did not deliver on pledges to streamline the healthcare system or deliver funding for child day care.

"The Conservatives did a much better job learning from their defeat [in 2004] than the Liberals did from their victory," said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

While Harper was reinventing himself, Martin was laboring under the shadow of an investigation into a kickback scandal. In November, a long-awaited report concluded that millions of dollars in public funds had been placed to advertising firms that kicked back money to the Liberal Party between 1997 and 2001, before Martin was prime minister. Although Martin was not personally implicated, the investigation aroused public ire toward his party and led to a no-confidence vote that triggered the early election.

"The Liberals have made enough mistakes to not warrant another chance," said Patrick James Brown, 38, a maintenance worker in Toronto.

However, like many other voters, Brown voted for a third party. In his case, it was the left-leaning New Democratic Party. "I prefer that if the Conservatives do get in, that they don't get a majority," he said.

Indeed, the Conservatives will only control a minority of the House of Commons' 308 seats, forcing them to cooperate with other parties. The Bloc Quebecois won 50 seats and the New Democratic Party won 31, more than doubling their seats.

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