Quick - in what North American country has an election occurred that's had potentially big repercussions for the party in power for years?
No, not Mexico. Canada.
The center-straddling Liberals, the only party capable of forming a government since 1993, suddenly face an opposition leader who may give them some, well, opposition.
The right-of-center Canadian Alliance has elected a hip, telegenic new chief: Alberta provincial treasurer Stockwell Day. He ran a hard campaign - and jogged it and rollerbladed it, too. It catapulted him from a provincial Cabinet ministry to the leadership of the opposition in Ottawa. The era of politician-as-fun-loving-celebrity, like the Clinton/Gore team on their rock-star bus tour during the 1992 campaign, has come to Canada.
Mr. Day's bio includes periods lived in many parts of Canada, including Quebec, where he learned passable French. He has been a jack-of-all-trades - auctioneer, trawlerman, interior decorator, sometime chicken breeder - rather than a career politician. And the voters, or at least the 114,000 party faithful casting ballots July 8, have demonstrated that they like the messenger - even if it's not quite clear what his message is.
He's a fiscal conservative, that's clear. On a couple of hot-button social issues, however - abortion and gay rights - he holds views so conservative that even his fellow party members scold him. It's not clear that he intends to translate these views into policy, however, or could if he wanted to. Says pollster Michael Marzolini of Pollara in Toronto, these topics are "not political issues - they're image issues."
Even on fiscal issues, however, Day is likely to have a polarizing effect. His big policy proposal is a 17 percent flat tax. And paradoxically, by attacking from the right he could push long-serving Prime Minister Jean Chrtien to the left - in ways Washington would not be happy to see.
If the Liberals, who now hold 157 out of 301 seats in the House of Commons, are reduced to a minority government in the next election, due within the year, they could well turn to the leftist New Democrats as a coalition partner.
"If the Americans like Lloyd Axworthy," says Ottawa political consultant Bruce Campbell with irony, referring to the Canadian foreign minister, "they'll love Svend Robinson."
Mr. Axworthy is not hesitant to differ with the United States on issues like antimissile defense or the international land-mines treaty. Mr. Robinson, the New Democrats' foreign policy critic and a possible foreign minister in a coalition, is even more outspoken. He has called NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark to be indicted for war crimes, for instance.
Day trounced Preston Manning, the Alliance founding leader, with 63 percent of the vote and is seen as better able than Mr. Manning was to win Alliance seats in rich, populous Ontario.
That the Liberals are seen as the only party that can form a government says a lot about Canadian national unity: The country is so regionalized that there is only one real nationwide party.
The Alliance is the official opposition but has no MPs from east of Manitoba. The New Democrats - 20 strong - are present east and west but not in Quebec. The Bloc Qubcois is strong in Quebec and nonexistent elsewhere.
The incredible shrinking Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, can claim to be a "nationwide" party just on grounds of distribution, but they are looking more like a Canadian version of the reality-TV show "Survivor." Their latest parliamentary loss came when party leader Joe Clark expelled a member from the caucus for making overtures to another party - the Alliance.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society