New Turmoil in ... Canada?

Canada's voters are uncertain and frustrated on eve of national elections. NAFTA's future is in question.

AS they prepare to vote in parliamentary elections Monday, Canadians show signs of the distrust for ``politics as usual'' now sweeping the industrial democracies. With a long recession, an unemployment rate of 11 percent, and a growing federal deficit, Canadian voters will likely drive the ruling Progressive Conservative Party, or Tories, from office.

But the discontent extends far beyond disaffection with Tories: Voters are questioning the longterm consensus that has held bilingual Canada together.

Canada's existence has always been problematic, dating to the French surrender of Quebec to England in 1763. Regional demands have conflicted with Canadian national aspirations. But the three major parties dominating politics after World War II - Tories, Liberals, and socialist New Democrats - have joined when necessary to keep regionalism at bay. These efforts suffered a stunning blow last October. In a national referendum, 53 percent of voters rejected the Charlottetown Accord, the Ottawa-backed constitutional agreement aimed at ending Quebec's secessionist threat.

Dissatisfaction with the players in Canadian politics has strengthened two grass-roots parties that arose during last year's referendum debate: the Bloc Quebecois and the western-based Reform Party. The threat of Italian-style minority governments, and a feeling of uncertainty, loom large. Americans, who have all but ignored Canada's election, now must turn their attention north. At the very least, NAFTA's future is in question.

A year ago, Tory decline was a given. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the least popular leader in Canadian history, had no choice but to resign. But Canada's Tories - whose policies are more akin to European Christian Democrats than to American conservatives - staged a small comeback. By naming Defense Minister Kim Campbell, a Vancouver lawyer with a sense of humor, to be prime minister, the Tories distanced themselves from Mr. Mulroney.

Chants of ``Kim, Kim, you're just like him'' showed that reshaping the Tory image was not enough. ``Campbellmania'' has faded. Today, the prime minister is perceived as short on substance and out of touch with the middle class.

Quebec often threatens to separate from Canada. Now, however, separatists are seeking for the first time to control Quebec's delegation in Ottawa. Polls show the Bloc - led by ex-Conservative Lucien Bouchard, an environment minister under Mulroney - will capture 50 of the francophone province's 75 seats in the House of Commons. The Bloc has been able to win broad support by steering clear of its pre-campaign emphasis on Quebec independence.

A vote for the Bloc is by no means equal to a vote for Quebec sovereignty. But the imminent strong Bloc vote will lead to a showdown referendum on Quebec's status in the near future.

English-speaking Canadians are voicing their anger with the Bloc by rallying behind the Reform Party, now in second place among anglophone voters. Reform, based in Alberta, was Canada's sagebrush rebellion: an anti-tax movement of westerners upset with federal bureaucrats who they feel ignore the middle class and dote on minorities, especially Quebeckers.

LED by Preston Manning, a blunt-speaking evangelical Protestant, Reform is presenting Canadian voters with a genuine right-of-center alternative. By attacking Ottawa, campaigning on deficit reduction and traditional values, Reform has captured the Tories' western base through a Reagan-style coalition of social conservatives, neoconservative intellectuals, and middle-class voters angry with taxes.

Reform's surge is more remarkable as it has challenged the high cost of one of Canada's sacred cows, national health care. A sign of Reform's strength is that Conservatives and Liberals, who used to slug it out with each other, are attacking Mr. Manning's movement.

Canada's next prime minister is likely to be Jean Chretien, the amiable leader of the Liberal Party. Mr. Chretien, a Quebecker who has been in parliament for three decades, was a loyal adviser to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In recent weeks, Chretien has been running a rose garden-style campaign, avoiding specifics while calling for deficit reduction and spending to stimulate employment. In the recent Angus Reid poll, his support climbed to 37 percent, with Conservatives getting 22 percent and Reform 18 percent. Chretien's strategy has worked largely because voters see Liberals as the stalwart federalists best able to battle Reform and the Bloc.

Canada's election is likely to have a direct impact on free trade. Although the Liberals have forsaken their anti-free-trade stance, NAFTA - signed into Canadian law earlier this year - remains unpopular with a large part of the population. If, in its efforts to woo recalcitrant congressional Democrats, the Clinton administration seeks to amend NAFTA to enhance American exports, a Liberal government will seek to review the accord to strengthen Canada's position. The Liberals' lukewarm allegiance to NAFTA would become even more tepid should they be forced to form a coalition government with their most likely partner, the socialist New Democratic Party. The NDP has declared that the cost of its support will be to scrap the free-trade treaty. This potential threat to free trade is but one of many new directions in policy we can expect from the changes now afoot in Canada. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.