Canada's Conservatives May Rise From Ashes of 1993's Searing Defeat

On top in '80s, party could make big gains in election this year

Canada's once-reigning Conservative Party may make a surprise comeback from the worst defeat in national politics.

In the October 1993 elections, the party went from being the ruling party, with 154 seats in the House of Commons, to just two seats.

Now the Progressive Conservative Party (its official title) appears set to win 30 seats - and maybe double that - in Canada's federal election, to be held later this year. There are 295 seats in the House of Commons, and the party that wins the most seats forms the government.

If Conservatives make big gains in the next election, they could become the "official opposition" or second most powerful party, challenging the ruling liberal government in the House of Commons on a daily basis.

The Conservatives have been the traditional opposition party in Canada. They were in power from 1984 to October 1993 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but the Liberal Party has reigned for all but 22 years this century.

Conservative leader Jean Charest won't predict how many seats his party will win. Even though the party's support in public opinion polls - 16 to 17 percent - is at the same level it was at the last election, he says there are local pockets of support that will translate into seats in Parliament.

"We have made steady gains everywhere, including Quebec. We could pick up half the seats in Atlantic Canada," says Mr. Charest. "If you do the math, the Liberals could be in trouble."

He says Canadians are tired of regional protest parties such as the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform Party. "The Conservatives are seen as a national party as opposed to a regional party," he says.

Some of Charest's colleagues are even more bullish about the size of a Conservative comeback.

"We could easily become the official opposition in the Commons," predicts a Conservative member of the upper house, the Senate, which is an appointed body. "We are going to take seats from the Liberals and the Bloc [the Quebec separatists] in the federal Parliament."

The Bloc Quebecois - the official opposition party - has been in decline since its popular leader and founder, Lucien Bouchard, left the party to become the premier of Quebec in 1996.

Even Liberals concede Charest and the Conservatives will make some kind of comeback in the next election. Voters might remember that Prime Minister Jean Chretien almost lost the referendum on Quebec independence in 1995.

"The Conservatives are going to be the surprise of the next election," says a top Liberal organizer in Toronto.

The Conservatives' ambitious first goal is to return to official opposition status in the election expected to be held this year.

The title of "official opposition" is more than just an honor. The opposition leader is paid more and is provided with a research staff.

More importantly, the official opposition party is allowed to ask lead-off questions in the daily question period in the House of Commons. That means the opposition can set the news agenda in newspapers and on TV.

Conservatives are also hoping that the Liberals under Mr. Chretien will win fewer than half of the seats in the Commons, producing a minority government.

The Conservatives are being helped by the unpopularity of Chretien in his home province of Quebec. Chretien is also under attack in English-speaking Canada for not keeping a major election promise to abolish the Goods and Services Tax, Canada's national sales tax.

Support for the populist Reform Party in the province of Ontario has slipped below 10 percent in the latest polls. In the 1993 election, Reform attracted many traditional Conservative voters, handing the Liberals 98 of Ontario's 99 seats in Parliament. Reform won one seat in Ontario, the Conservatives none.

"People see me as a person who can reach out to everyone in the country," says Charest, one of the two Conservative members currently in the Commons. "They don't see that in [Reform Party leader Preston] Manning."

Pollsters agree that Charest is the Conservatives biggest asset. He is well liked across Canada.

"Our polls show Jean Charest is the only credible alternative to the prime minister," says Darrell Bricker of the Ottawa office the Angus Reid Group, the largest independent polling firm in Canada.

The Conservatives and Charest can expect their weakest support to come from western Canada, where Charest is seen as another politician from Quebec. Canada's prime ministers have been Quebeckers for 29 of the past 30 years. Charest is also seen as too left-wing for free-market conservatives, though he has promised a tax cut.

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