CAN a political party with a redneck image make it in a country as liberal as Canada?
The Reform Party is a populist movement that started in western Canada. It built a platform dedicated to cutting government spending and taking a tough line on issues such as immigration and Quebec separatism.
Reform wants to go national, widening its support to embrace conservatives outside western Canada. So far it hasn't won any extra seats in Parliament. But this week the party did surprise observers by making a strong showing in three of six by-elections on Monday.
By coming in a strong second in one Toronto district and by placing second in another race in Newfoundland, a province where it had not been strong before, the party says it is making national inroads.
"We are pleased by the results. We made significant gains," said Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party. "We are in an excellent position to go after the Liberals [Prime Minister Jean Chretien's party] when the general election comes."
Still, Monday's small gains did not have the same impact as when Reform changed the face of Canadian politics in the October 1993 election.
Then, Reform took the conservative vote, reducing the Progressive Conservative Party to just two seats in Canada's 295-seat House of Commons. Reform won 52 seats. All but one of its members come from the four western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
BUT despite the party's efforts to broaden its support, it is seen as too regional and puritanical in the cosmopolitan cites of central Canada. "I'm a fiscal conservative, and I like that message from the Reform Party," says Robert Glynn, an advertising executive in Toronto. "But I'm not a moral conservative and that strident tone is going to limit them nationally." He is referring to the party's stands on such controversial issues as gun control and abortion.
In the run-up to Monday's elections, a series of incidents reinforced Reform's image. Three of its members in Parliament complained openly that the party's views were too extreme. They felt Reform had swung too far to the right and complained about its platform, which favors corporal punishment and opposes official bilingualism, gun control, and equal opportunity for women and minorities.
"I'm about as far right as I want to go,'' said Jan Brown, one of the MPs who complained. She said her party should stick to economic issues such as deficit-fighting. "I don't want to see us sidelined with these other things."
The three MPs who complained to a newspaper one week, were silenced the next. "We are determined to beat this charge of extremism that has plagued us," said Mr. Manning after a party caucus meeting in which the three were chastised.
Some Reform supporters feel the party has to do more to shake is extremist image if it is ever to move beyond being a western Canadian fringe party.
"Support from the gun lobby has been a problem for the Reform Party," admits Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and a former research director for the party. He feels that the party has a problem of perception, since the socialist New Democratic Party was also against the bill to license rifles and shotguns.
"With Reform, it's not the party position but the rhetoric of party members," says Mr. Flanagan. "In American terms, Reform is in the center of the Republican Party - certainly less conservative than [United States House Speaker] Newt Gingrich."