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Canadian National Elections Likely to be Very Close - 2004-06-27

A national election in Canada on Monday is likely to to be one of the tightest in the country's history, and could lead to the formation of the first minority government in decades. What was once thought to be a boring campaign has turned into a close fight between the governing Liberals and the Conservatives.

The most recent opinion polls show the governing Liberal Party of Prime Minister Paul Martin in a statistical tie with the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper.

Since Mr. Martin took over the nation's top job from former Prime Minister Jean Chretien in December, support for the liberals has gradually eroded. Polls show both parties are now garnering about 29-to-32 percent of the popular vote, with the remaining support going to other parties. These include the left-wing New Democratic Party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, and the Green Party, which has yet to win in any federal election.

Canada follows the British Parliamentary system, which means voters do not directly elect the prime minister, but members of Parliament. The party with the most seats in Parliament usually is asked to form a government, and the party leader generally becomes prime minister. In this election, Canadians are casting ballots for 308 parliamentary seats.

Political scientist Ron Cheffins of the University of Victoria says the main issue has been the sponsorship scandal, which saw millions of dollars diverted to Liberal-friendly advertising agencies. The money was originally intended to fight Quebec independence by improving Canada's image in the French-speaking province. The Liberals have also faced accusations of wasting money on a gun registry and employment initiatives.

Mr. Cheffins said the campaign was unusually negative. "I can't think of any highlights to speak of. It was one of the meanest, most vicious-spirited, negative campaigns I've seen in my life. The governing Liberal Party, which assumes it has a divine right to rule, launched a massive demonization campaign against the conservatives, which is their usual tactic. They did it against the previous conservative leader of the alliance, as they were called, but this has exceeded it. They have characterized Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader as being, if not quite the devil, probably his lieutenant," he said.

During a campaign stop in Vancouver's Chinatown this past week, Prime Minister Martin told a packed restaurant, if Canadians elect Mr. Harper and the conservatives, they would get a vastly different Canada. "In this campaign, we the government, seek a mandate from the people. We come before the nation with a record of achievement, and we face a party and leader that have a very different view of what Canada should be. Let me just go through some of the differences. I want to respect our commitments to the court on climate change. Stephen Harper would tear up Kyoto and he would renege on Canada's pledge," he said. "I want to build a military that will look to peacekeeping and peace-making. And Stephen Harper wants to fight the Cold War all over again, and build aircraft carriers. No!"

Prior to becoming prime minister, Mr. Martin served as Canada's finance minister for most of the past decade.

Mr. Harper has been focusing his Conservative Party campaign on the sponsorship scandal, and what he says is mis-management of Canada's finances. "Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Martin has no more credibility on healthcare funding than he has on spending control," he said. "And on that, this government has so little credibility that we have to turn to the auditor general, to judicial inquiries, to police investigations to find out where our money is. You know, this guy has the gall to suggest I or anyone else has hidden agendas. Don't talk about hidden agendas, until you can find out what you did with our money Mr. Martin." Like many of his academic colleagues, Mr. Cheffins says the Liberals are likely to lose their majority in Parliament, and will have to form a minority government, because the separatist Bloc Quebecois is likely to win in traditionally liberal areas in Quebec province.