CANADA is on the eve of what could be one of the biggest political shifts in its history with voters moving en masse away from the political mainstream parties toward smaller, protest parties.
If recent polling results hold at the ballot box on Monday, Canadians will overwhelmingly reject a third mandate for the ruling Progressive Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Kim Campbell and turn to the Liberal Party, led by Jean Chretien.
Liberals and Conservatives have traded power since the country's federal system was formed in 1867. But there is a significant twist this time.
Many of the lost Conservative seats will not go Liberal this time, but fall instead to two previously tiny protest parties - the Alberta-based Reform Party led by Preston Manning and the Quebec-based separatist Bloc Qucois (BQ) led by Lucien Bouchard.
Besides their familiar Conservative antagonists, Chretien's Liberals could be sitting across the aisle from BQ and Reform newcomers as the number two and three powers in Parliament.
``It's really a breakup of the traditional party system we've had in this country,'' says Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. Old rules abandoned
Gone is the simple rule Liberals and Conservatives long followed to win federal elections: Capture majorities in Ontario and Quebec and let the rest of the country take care of itself.
In Quebec, the BQ is set to capture as many as 60 of the province's 75 seats. Conservatives, who won 63 Quebec seats in 1988, appear unlikely to win more than two seats. Liberals are trying to hold 12 seats. But even Mr. Chretien is threatened in his home voting district.
Both Chretien and Ms. Campbell have loudly warned of the danger to Canadian unity of a large BQ contingent in Ottawa. Former Prime Minister Trudeau joined them this week, telling reporters that a big BQ victory would represent a move toward regionalism and disintegration of the country.
``If you weaken the government of Canada, which [BQ leader] Bouchard intends doing, you do no favor to Canadians, you do a favor to those who believe in separation,'' Trudeau said.
Unable to count on Quebec to combine with his Liberal party's electoral clout in Ontario (which is expected to go strongly Liberal), Chretien has focused on the West, criss-crossing its 89 voting districts. There he hopes a hard campaign in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories will win him the last few seats he needs to form a Liberal majority government, with at least 148 of the 295 seats in the House of Commons. ``I want the West in,'' he says at every stop.
Standing in his way, however, is Mr. Manning. The West is his home turf, the base of his surging Reform Party. With Campbell's drop in the polls, voters are abandoning the Conservatives for Reform.
Chretien, Campbell, and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Audrey McLaughlin all have strongly attacked Reform in recent weeks. Manning has been called a racist, a demagogue (he is a fundamentalist Christian), and an accountant who favors gutting pension, health care, and welfare benefits.
Manning says the ``old line'' parties misrepresent him in order to frighten voters. He would, he says, restructure immigration to meet Canada's economic needs. He also says he would cut social welfare and universal health care benefits to reduce the nation's deficit to zero in three years.
Driving the shift toward Reform, some analysts say, is the notion that a politician who offers such stark views must be telling the truth. But the party's stance on Quebec has won it votes, too: It is just another province and should get no special treatment. That is a winner out West where any special concessions to Quebec are resented.
Reform has been helped by its firm stand toward Quebec. Chretien, however, says BQ strength is a reason to vote Liberal to ensure a federalist majority to counter the BQ. Economic ramifications
Bond, stock, and currency markets already expect a Liberal majority government. Under that scenario it would not matter too much to foreign investors if Reform and BQ squabble.
If the Liberals fail to gain the needed 148 seats in Parliament, however, the minority government would have to try to attract supporting votes from the ranks of the NDP and any other party, an unstable situation investors dislike.
Whether the Liberals will have a majority or minority government is one remaining question. But what is already evident, says Professor Wiseman, is that ``this could also be the biggest setback for the Conservative Party in Canadian electoral history.''
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led Conservatives to win a majority government in 1984, and an even larger 169-seat majority in the House of Commons in 1988. On Monday, however, the Tories may get 35 seats or less, or about 12 percent of the total, Wiseman estimates. Others say Conservatives may get as few as 15 seats.