Meteoric rise of the Canadian left. By-election victories hint at major political shift

Stunning victories by Canada's leftist opposition party in parliamentary by-elections confirm a dramatic loss of support for the ruling party and may portend major changes in the country's political makeup. The New Democratic Party (NDP), which has never formed a national government, won all three by-elections held Monday in diverse areas of the country. The NDP staged upsets in ruling party strongholds in Newfoundland and the Yukon Territory and retained its seat in a Hamilton, Ontario, district.

``We are witnessing a rather basic change in political attitudes,'' says Edward Broadbent, leader of the social-democratic NDP.

The election results confirm the NDP's meteoric rise in recent public opinion polls, political analysts say, and reflect widespread disaffection with the two mainstream parties, the ruling Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals.

``The polls have been up long enough now for the NDP that one has to take those polls very, very seriously,'' says political scientist Robert Jackson.

Last week, a Gallup poll showed the NDP with 41 percent of popular support - more than twice its traditional standing - compared to 35 percent for the Liberals and 23 percent for the Conservatives.

Political analysts believe the NDP's rising fortunes reflect Mr. Broadbent's popularity and honest-broker image, rather than a major Canadian shift to the left. If the party hopes to form the next government, they say, it may have to alter its more radical positions, such as the withdrawal from NATO and the nationalization of at least one Canadian bank.

But, according to Mr. Jackson, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will be forced to make major policy changes and shuffle his Cabinet to avoid losing the next general election, expected within two years.

The NDP victories illustrate how far the Conservatives have fallen since their landslide victory in the 1984 general election, when they won 208 seats in the House of Commons. The NDP took only 30 seats, and the Liberals, the previous ruling party, garnered 40.

Mr. Mulroney's pro-business government has been hit with a number of scandals since taking office. The centrist Liberal Party under John Turner has failed to regain the once-predominant position it held under Pierre Trudeau, who led the party to several successive victories in the 1970s and early 1980s.

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