Canada's Political Kingpin Wobbles in Public's Eye

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is weathering the worst political storm of his three years in office. Whether it is just a squall or a full-blown blizzard remains to be seen.

Mr. Chretien's government has been pelted in the past month with one large chunk of bad news after another - not a good way to begin a likely election year. And Chretien, who has previously shed problems as though he were as Teflon-coated as Ronald Reagan, is finding some of it sticking.

Restoring voters' faith in government has been Chretien's goal since his 1993 landslide victory. During that campaign he pointed to his "red book" of campaign promises written down for all to see.

But a Jan. 27 poll shows 72 percent of Canadians say they would not believe campaign promises in any future red book, largely because a few key promises, such as attacking Canada's uncomfortably high 9.7 jobless rate, have gone unfulfilled.

The prime minister's troubles began in December. When an unemployed woman from Saskatchewan on a televised "town hall" show told Chretien she couldn't find a job, instead of "feeling her pain," Clinton-style, he told her to "move."

On the same TV show, the normally sure-footed Chretien also denied he had ever made a 1993 campaign pledge to dump the much-hated national sales tax. After the show, there was so much criticism that even the obdurate Chretien was forced into a half-apology.

Since then, an ongoing military scandal has grown. And a health-care scandal involving the nation's blood supply widened to include documents destroyed by federal bureaucrats. Finally, and most galling to Chretien, archrival and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney won a high-profile libel suit against the government - inducing yet another apology.

Not surprisingly, the once rock-steady public support for Chretien's Liberal Party has dropped - along with his personal popularity. Chretien had pledged honest government that earned citizen trust. This "trust factor" is slipping, pollsters say.

Support for the Liberals has fallen from 55 percent in November to 46 percent in a recent poll by Canadian Facts, a market-research organization. Another recent poll corroborated those findings, showing the Liberals at 47 percent support.

One reason pundits are not calling the slide a full-blown crisis is that if an election were held today, the Liberals would still easily win.

"This is definitely the worst period they've had since being elected," says Donna Dasko, vice president of Environics, a Toronto-based polling firm. "Still, they have a lot of room to make mistakes."

Conrad Winn, a pollster at COMPAS in Ottawa, says that the government's recent troubles could hurt it in an election, which many pundits expect this fall. Chretien's government enjoys broad but perilously unenthusiastic support, Dr. Winn says.

The fragmentation of the opposition parties gives the Liberals a huge advantage. In the COMPAS poll, the separatist Bloc Qubcois, the official opposition party, has only 11 percent support. The Reform Party, at 13 percent, finds most of its strength in British Columbia and Alberta. The socialist New Democratic Party, although it is making gains, is still at only 11 percent, according to Canadian Facts.

The big question mark is the Progressive Conservative Party. It holds just two seats in Parliament. But some say it could win 40 or 50 seats in the next election.

The issue of Quebec secession, narrowly defeated in 1995, is one possible stumbling block for the Liberals. But Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard has promised the next referendum on Quebec separation will not be held until 1998.

Chretien even may emerge from the current storm with the Quebec issue working for him, says Reg Whitaker, a political scientist at York University in Ontario. "The Liberals will hold an election, probably in the fall, just before the issue is forced back onto the front burner in 1998," he says.

"When you think about it, the timing is quite exquisite."

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