Canada's battle of unpopularity

Canadians are searching the horizon for a political leader to repair the country's battered sense of destiny. Unfortunately, the most obvious choice - former Prime Minister Joe Clark - has problems of his own.

By all counts, the leader of the opposition Progressive Conservative Party should be basking in goodwill. The economy is mired in recession. Polls show the current prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, is widely unpopular. And Mr. Trudeau himself has promised he would step down.

But Mr. Clark has his own political storm clouds. He is caught up in a grueling struggle to fend off a revolt within his party that has the potential to crush his chances of reclaiming national office.

The perplexing drama will be played out at a four-day Conservative conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, beginning Jan. 26. Usually a routine affair, the meeting has attracted intense national attention because of the turmoil within Mr. Clark's party. Its outcome will also have an important bearing on the next national election.

That national vote, although it need not be held until 1985, has quite surprisingly become the prime focus of Canadian politics today. The reason is that Mr. Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party, promised after being reelected in 1980 to step down before Canadians go to the polls again.

Although Trudeau achieved a majority victory in 1980, the country, after almost 14 years of his stewardship, appears impatient for a change. This sentiment has gathered unusual force in the past year as Canadians slogged through the worst recession of any industrialized nation, a plunge so profound that it has undercut the public's traditional faith in Canada's economic vitality.

Approval of Trudeau's leadership, as measured in opinion polls, has fallen to 29 percent of voters, one of the lowest levels of any prime minister in decades.

By contrast, Clark got a stunning approval rating of 49 percent in the most recent Gallup poll, taken in December. (Other voters favored the smaller New Democratic Party.) But Clark's current popularity has been submerged in the rush by both parties to come out on top after Trudeau goes.

Clark's problem is that his party, out of power for most of this century, fears that he might fumble his next chance despite his current lead in popularity over the Liberals.

Once known nationally as ''Joe Who?'' because of his low profile, Clark is a longtime party man from the small town of High River in the western province of Alberta. Although he has been leader of his party since 1976 and was prime minister briefly in 1979, he has never fully mastered the political skills of the television age. On camera, he seems awkward, shy, and anything but charismatic.

Worse, Clark is widely thought to have won the 1979 election on a wave of dissatisfaction with Trudeau more than on his own appeal to the voters. And his nine months in power was marked by a number of glaring political pratfalls leading to an unexpected election and defeat at the hands of a resurgent Trudeau.

In short, there is great doubt that, once Trudeau is gone, Clark would be able to overcome a new Liberal candidate, particularly the widely liked Liberal Toronto lawyer, John Turner.

Compounding Clark's troubles is a traditional lack of party discipline among the Conservatives and a right-wing faction that frowns on Clark's centrist policies. A party bylaw requires that the 2,000 Tory delegates meeting in Winnipeg this week vote on whether to hold a leadership conference - effectively a polling of confidence in Clark.

Although he is expected to obtain the necessary 50 percent approval, Clark may fall short of the 70 percent needed to rally his party behind him. In a similar vote in 1981, he received 66 percent in the run-up to the convention.

If the convention goes badly for Clark, it will give the Liberals, now in a grim state brought on by Trudeau's unpopularity, new hopes of recovering sufficiently to stay in power through the 1980s.

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