BRIAN MULRONEY'S announcement Feb. 24 that he will resign after eight and a half years as Canada's prime minister has instantly reshaped the nation's political landscape.
Dominating Canadian federal politics since his landslide victory in 1984, Mr. Mulroney wanted to run for a third term. But a personal approval rating stuck at 17 percent led him to step down to help his Progressive Conservative Party, whose popularity has fallen to 21 percent in polls. Mulroney, analysts say, realized he had to leave so the party had a chance to win federal elections later this year.
Battered by recession, an 11 percent unemployment rate, and fiscal policies that cut funding for popular social programs, Canadians further lost confidence in Mulroney two years ago with the introduction of a national value-added tax.
Mulroney's legacy includes leading the nation through two wrenching attempts to unite Quebec more firmly with the rest of Canada, and through completion of the 1989 free trade agreement with the United States, which some claim has contributed to the country's economic problems.
Now after months of news media speculation, his decision to step aside has created a political vacuum, observers say.
"You have the governing party looking for a leader at the same moment that we have very weak opposition parties," says Richard Simeon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
That vacuum is felt most in Quebec, perhaps the only place where Mulroney's pull was still strong. The bilingual son of Irish immigrants, Mulroney's ability to build a coalition between French nationalists in his home province of Quebec and western provincial Conservatives was key in helping Conservatives win power in past elections.
"I don't think anyone would have quite the same profile that Mulroney had in Quebec," says Lloyd Axworthy, the Liberal Party's foreign affairs critic in Parliament. The big question for Conservatives is whether a new party leader, likely to be an anglophone from outside Quebec, will be able to woo Quebec voters.
"The Conservatives will not have another leader from Quebec," says George Rawlyk, a Queens University history professor. "This weakens the Conservative Party in Quebec."
Indeed, with only one exception, the top contenders are anglophones: Kim Campbell, Canada's first woman defense minister; Perrin Beatty, communications minister; Michael Wilson, trade and industry minister; Donald Mazankowski, finance minister; and Jean Charest, the environment minister, who is a bilingual Quebecker.
Mulroney's last big political move seems a savvy one just nine months before the Dec. 12 deadline for a federal election, some observers say. It virtually guarantees the sagging Progressive Conservatives a boost in coming weeks as the news media rivets itself on the search for a new party leader to take over as prime minister and then lead an uphill election fight. The spectacle peaks at a June convention.
Members of Canada's other parties, however, say this will not be enough to keep the Conservatives in power. Ian Angus, chief whip of the New Democratic Party, says: "The vast majority of Canadians feel so angry about what Mulroney and the Conservative government have done, they won't care who leads the party, they're going to be looking for an alternative."
Liberal Party officials also seem unworried. "All conservatives are tarred with the same problems Mulroney had," Mr. Axworthy says. "It will be difficult for any to disown the Mulroney legacy of 11 percent unemployment."
Conservative insiders like Thomas McMillan, Canada's consul general in Boston, who served for four years in Mulroney's Cabinet, say the party has a chance.
"The electorate is extremely fluid and mercurial," he says. "The prime minister's announcement changes fundamentally the political environment.... I think polls that favor the Liberal Party are an inch deep and a zillion miles wide."
Aside from its immediate political implications, some say Mulroney's departure heralds a wider Canadian shift. "It looks as though it's an end of an era," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "He was our equivalent of [Britain's Margaret] Thatcher and [former United States President Ronald] Reagan. The question is whether the Conservative era will pass entirely, or whether we'll get our version of John Major or George Bush."
Mr. Bliss descibes Mulroney as less an ideologue than a "political adventurer" who took independent positions on foreign policy matters, but will be remembered for uniting Canada more closely with the US through free trade.
"His greatest legacy is the [US-Canada Free Trade Agreement], Professor Bliss says. "It's the real way that Brian Mulroney changed Canada." Others agree that his legacy as a deficit-cutter and free-trader is probably secure. Says Sen. Gerald Beaudoin: "True, we are living through difficult times. But I think that history is going to be kind to him."