Voters in Canada are heading to the polls Monday in the country's general election. What started out with a comfortable lead for the reigning Liberals has turned into a possible win for the opposition Conservatives.
The election campaign was one the of longest in Canadian history.
The process started in late November, when the minority government of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin lost a non-confidence motion in parliament. The confidence vote was triggered by a public inquiry that found Liberal politicians in Quebec had taken kickbacks in return for government contracts.
Despite the turmoil, Mr. Martin's party enjoyed a comfortable lead. Now, recent opinion polls suggest that Conservative opposition leader Stephen Harper will win at least a minority government and become Canada's next prime minister.
Finishing his campaign in Vancouver late Sunday night, Stephen Harper told a crowd of boisterous supporters that if elected prime minister, he would move government beyond the scandals and investigations and corruption.
"A new government that will stop being distracted by scandals and will get on with standing up for accountability. Friends, the first of legislation will be the federal accountability act," he said. "We will act to restore the faith and trust of Canadian citizens in their national government my friends. If I am elected your prime minister, I will do everything in my power to make sure the scandals we've endured from this government never can happen again in this country."
During the last few weeks, the Liberal Party has been running a series of negative ads, attacking the conservative leader over several issues including his anti-abortion stance and plans for privately funding health care. The Liberals have also said that Harper, if elected, will reject the Kyoto agreement on clean air and reverse Canada's legalization of same-sex marriage.
Speaking at his last rally of the campaign, again in Vancouver, Mr. Martin continued the attack on his conservative opponent.
"Clearly you and I and Mr. Harper have two very different ideas of Canada," he said. "And so I simply say directly to Canadians, if you don't share Stephen Harper's narrow vision and his values, if you don't want Canada to go down that road, then you have to ask yourself a question. What can I do to stop him? What can I do to ensure that come Tuesday morning, Stephen Harper is not prime minister of Canada? There is only one answer to that question (Audience: Vote Liberal!) The only party that shares your values, you got the answer, vote liberal!"
For University of Victoria political scientist Ron Cheffins, what made this election unique and different is the improvement in the Conservative campaign.
"Marvelous campaign run by the Conservatives, one of the best ever," he said. "Their 2004 campaign was probably one of the worst campaigns ever run by a party. So they went from one of the worst campaigns in history to one of the best. The Liberal Party thought they could run the same campaign demonizing Mr. Harper, not having any real policy proposals. But, Mr. Harper appeared this time, was intelligent, clear, organized [and] thoughtful. The demonization didn't work."
In Canada, voters cast ballots for local members of parliament. The party with the most elected MPs, as they are called, usually forms a minority or a majority government, and the party leader becomes prime minister. There are 308 members of parliament.