Canada's three major political parties are headed for a historic realignment - barring a sizable shift in public opinion before a national election Nov. 21. With polls showing the Progressive Conservative Party getting 42 percent of the vote, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney could win a renewed majority in the House of Commons. It would be the first time since 1953 that a ruling party has come back for a second term without the need for support from another party.
This prospect has bolstered the Canadian dollar, making it rise above 83 cents to the United States dollar. Canada's business community favors the Tories.
The Liberal Party, which has governed Canada for 35 of the last 48 years, would fall into third place, according to recent polls. They indicate that 29 percent of decided voters support the New Democratic Party (NDP), only 28 percent favor the Liberals.
In past elections, the NDP usually got only 18 to 19 percent of the vote. Nor was it a truly national party. It received strong voter backing only in western Canada and northern Ontario, and spotty support in Atlantic Canada. But this time the NDP has more support in southern Ontario and Quebec, the two most populous provinces.
There is considerable suspicion that when voters actually put their X's on the ballots, many who told pollsters they would vote NDP will worry about the party's socialist wing and vote for the more moderate Liberal Party.
Nonetheless, as NDP party secretary William Knight noted: ``This is the first time in history we are at least in contention nationally.'' Thus, this campaign is the first genuine three-way race in Canadian federal elections.
Another historic change has been the loss of Quebec by the Liberals. The Tories swept the province when they won power in 1984. The polls show the Conservatives again winning a large majority of the seats in that primarily French-speaking province.
To Canadians, the shift is as significant as the opening of the South to the Republicans has been in the US.
These polls were taken before a flurry of news stories last week alleging that a group of top Liberals had discussed the implications of changing leaders in mid-campaign. The reports were dismissed as ``crazy'' by John Turner, who has faced substantial challenges to his Liberal Party leadership.
They also preceded the two televised debates of the party leaders - Monday in French, Tuesday in English. In both debates, Mr. Mulroney was attacked by the two opposition party leaders for his government's conclusion of a free- trade arrangement with the United States. Passage of that deal by the Canadian Parliament has been blocked by the Liberal-dominated Senate. But political analysts say Mr. Turner failed to land a knockout punch on Mulroney.
In recent days, both Conservatives and Liberals have turned more of their political firepower on the NDP.
In Tuesday's debate, Turner accused the NDP and its leader, Ed Broadbent, of disguising from the voters such party policies as withdrawal from NATO, nationalization of one of Canada's Big Five commercial banks, and a goal of 50 percent Canadian ownership of Canada's resource industries.
Actually, all Canadian parties try to crowd into the middle at election time, though that middle tends to be left of Michael Dukakis in the US.
A current joke about this nation asks: Why does a Canadian cross the road? The answer: To get to the middle.
In US terms, Mulroney himself would be classified as a moderate or liberal, strongly supporting the nation's nationalized medical program and introducing legislation to broaden a national day-care program. (The bill died when the election was called.) The London Economist spoke of ``bleeding-heart conservatives.''
Canadians in general pride themselves on having greater public compassion than their American cousins. Many are shocked by the number of homeless in US cities.
To broaden his party's appeal, Mr. Broadbent promised that an NDP government would not withdraw from NATO in its first term, but he could not persuade the party to drop that platform provision completely. Most Canadians support their country's membership in the military alliance.
Mr. Knight maintains that Broadbent has turned the NDP into ``a modern social democratic party'' along the lines of that in Sweden or Austria, and that it is not ``socialist.'' The party has its origins in Western populism and British Labour Party traditions. It receives about one-quarter of its funding from Canadian trade unions.
The Liberal Party's problems stem from both splits over key issues (free trade and a constitutional change that will fully embrace Quebec as a ``distinct society'') and the low standing of Turner in public-opinion polls.
A survey earlier this month put him in third place, with only 15 percent support, as the party leader Canadians would prefer as prime minister. In that poll, Mulroney jumped above Broadbent to 40 percent preference.
The prime minister, besieged by real or manufactured scandals among Cabinet members, had been at the bottom of this popularity poll a year or so ago. Critics disliked his overly rich baritone voice, and what they see as a tendency toward strong partisanship and some blarney.
Mulroney, however, has consciously put himself in the statesman's role, chairing three summits (Francophone, Commonwealth, and Group of Seven) in Canada in the past 18 months. Some analysts say he has toned down his rhetoric. ``This guy has matured in the job,'' maintains Bruce Phillips, his communications director. ``He's a man who profits from experience.''
His government is also being helped by an economic expansion that is the strongest among the Western industrial democracies.