Tough Steering in Canada

Prime Minister Jean Chrtien called an election hoping to solidify his Liberal Party's grasp on power and set a surer course for Canada. Though he won Monday's tally, he lost on those broader counts.

The Liberals' majority in Parliament shrank to a slim 155 out of 301 seats, and the gains by three other parties - the Western-based Reform Party, the left-leaning New Democratic Party, and the nearly extinct Progressive Conservatives - presage fractious politics ahead.

The rise of the Reform Party to main opposition status in Parliament, with 60 seats, assures that national unity will remain issue No. 1. The Reform leader, Preston Manning, embodies Western impatience with the Quebec separatists. The separatists' party, Bloc Quebecois, lost 10 seats, but is still a major factor, with 44.

Polls during the campaign indicated that average Canadians would have liked to see their candidates wrestle with the economic challenges facing the country, rather than endlessly replay the unity/separatist themes. Notably, the party that tried hardest to raise the volume on such issues as Canada's 9.6 percent unemployment, the New Democrats, made a big jump to 21 seats, mainly in the prairie and Atlantic provinces. Its gains signal that Canada - like France, Germany, and much of the Western industrial world - is torn between social spending to aid the jobless and sustain health care, and the fiscal austerity that erases deficits and ushers in economic expansion.

But in Canada that debate inevitably gets subordinated to the overarching question of holding the country itself together. The Reform Party wants greater prerogatives for provincial governments, echoing the devolution tune now heard in Britain, as well as the current US preference for delegating power to the states. And unlike the other Canadian parties, Reform rejects any special cultural status for French-speaking Quebec.

Chrtien, himself a Quebecker but a firm federalist, may rue the judgment call of launching elections 18 months early. His judgment will face even tougher tests as Canada enters a period of extraordinary political flux.

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