Scandal becomes the main focus in Canada's election

Canadians go to the polls Monday, and a pro-US conservative could become the country's next prime minister.

It's being called the tightest election race in a generation - so close that there may be no clear winner to govern Canada after the ballots are counted.

Canadians are going to the polls Monday to elect their next federal government. In what has become a two-way race, they'll decide whether to return to power the scandal-plagued Liberals under Prime Minister Paul Martin for a third consecutive term, or take their chances on a rejuvenated pro-US Conservative Party led by political newcomer Stephen Harper.

It's shaping up that Canada may get neither.

"We're in the process of creating a dysfunctional Parliament that cannot work," warns Barry Kay, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. "We'll be having an election within a few months."

If opinion polls are any indicator, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals will have enough of the 308 parliamentary seats to claim uncontested power - a situation that forces them to forge alliances with their political rivals, the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and the separatist Bloc Québécois.

In the strange world of Canadian politics, the balance of power could fall in the hands of the Bloc, a regional political party bent on breaking up the country because it wants French-speaking Quebec to secede from Canada.

Canada has been ruled by a minority government eight times in its 137-year history, most recently in 1979. That government lasted nine months.

"I think we'll have another election by the end of the year, certainly by this time next year," Kay says.

Such prospects are a major blow to the once formidable Liberals, who have held political sway in this country for more than a decade. In a bid to break the Liberal stranglehold, two conservative parties - the western-based Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives - united in December and formed the Conservative Party of Canada.

Mr. Martin's short time as prime minister - he took over from Jean Chrétien, who retired in December - has been plagued by troubles, the most serious being a scandal in which the government funneled $100 million to friendly advertising firms for little or no work between 1997 and 2001.

The scandal has been the greatest ammunition for the three challenging parties, especially for the Conservatives, who until recently were not expected to do well in this election. But Mr. Harper, who has called for lower taxes, bolstering the military, and improving ties with the United States, has kept the scandal's heat on Martin, who was finance minister at the time. Martin, who wants to boost healthcare spending and create a national child-care program, has accused Harper of wanting to turn the country into the US.

Although the Conservatives have gained enough ground to challenge the Liberals, Stephen Clarkson, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, says that Canada is not swinging to the right.

"Three of the four parties are in effect on the left of the political spectrum, in terms of social policies," he says. "And they're presumably going to get 70 percent of the vote, so that wouldn't speak of a shift to the right."

In the end it may be more than just a numbers game to determine who rules in Ottawa. In Canada, governments are ultimately appointed by the governor general, based on who's elected to the House of Commons. In the case of a minority government, party leaders have to convince the governor general that they control the house before being granted power.

"It'll be a question of which party more legitimately can claim to become the government," Mr. Clarkson says. "It's a very confused and exciting situation."

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