Trudeau rises, Clark plunges

AS if echoing the world at large, Canadian political developments seem to be evolving at a topsy-turvy pace. Neither the public nor the country's politicians can quite keep up.

While some of this nation's political leaders have suddenly come crashing downward in popular esteem, others have begun to soar just as dramatically.

Liberal Party leader Pierre Trudeau, a political has-been on the verge of retirement in November, is one of those on the way up. He has undergone a striking transformation and now stands a good chance of regaining the prime minister's post. He lost that position after 11 years to Joe Clark in the election last May.

Mr. Trudeau's revival, however, is a direct result of Prime Minister Clark's abrupt plunge in popularity. Recent opinion polls give Mr. Trudeau a 20 percent lead over the Progressive Conservative leader in voter preference -- a margin unprecedented in any national election in the past 15 years.

Quebec Primier Rene Levesque, Mr. clark's arch rival in the struggle over Quebec independence, is another who finds his once- shining star -- at least in Quebec -- to be waning rapidly. At no other time in the 38 months since his independence-minded Parti Quebecois took power have the prospects of Mr. Levesque seemed worse. One of the reasons for Mr. Levesque's decline is the growing esteem of the public for Quebec provincial Liberal leader Claude Ryan.

Yet if the polls prove accurate and Mr. Clark in unable to reshape the public's attitude before the Feb. 18 election, the Conservatives face what could be one of the most abrupt reversals in Canadian history.

Mr. Clark was elected last May by a public ready for change after 16 straight years of Liberal rule. Though Mr. Clark's minority government controlled only 136 of Parliament's 282 seats, it was assumed that the Conservatives would be given at least a year -- and probably longer -- to try their hand at solving the country's deeply entrenched economic and regional problems.

Instead, Mr. Clark's government lasted seven months before the Liberal and New Democratic opposition parties rebelled against the Conservatives' austere economic program and overturned the government in mid- December.

As much as anything, Mr. Clark's short- lived regime fell victim to a set of election promises that rapidly became obsolete as the world oil and economic pictures shifted in the months after the Conservatives took office.

Sensing rightly that many Canadians objected to big government, the Conservatives had as the opposition party long promised that, once in office, they would turn Petro- Canada, the national oil company created by the Liberals, over to the private sector.

But by the time Mr. Clark, as prime minister, was ready late last year to fulfill this pledge, the world oil crisis and the emerging possibility of heating oil shortages in parts of Canada had convinced many Canadians that giving up the national oil company was pure folly.

The Clark regime backtracked on promised tax cuts for similar reasons. It also ended up looking foolish over the election promise to change the location of the Canadian Embassy in Israel.

All this ensures that Mr. Trudeau can strike a responsive chord among some voters when he says, "The reason why we are having this winter election is because Joe Clark and his colleagues have been providing unacceptably bad government for Canada. Frankly, they have made a mess of things."

But Mr. Trudeau, who put off his retirement to lead the Liberals in one last election, has much to overcome, too. Though his party is endeavoring to stress the Liberal "team" in keeping with Mr. Trudeau's role as caretaker leader of the party, dozens of prominent Liberals, including five former Cabinet ministers, have declined to run on the Trudeau ticket.

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