Not so long ago, Chuck Cadman was a marginal political player, a pony-tailed rogue on the backbenches of Canada's federal Parliament. This week, he is arguably the most powerful man in the country.
Mr. Cadman's vote will, in all likelihood, decide the fate of Prime Minister Paul Martin and his embattled Liberal Party. Amid a political and financial scandal that has implicated people in his party, Mr. Martin's minority government is expected to face a vote of confidence Thursday. Cadman's vote could tip the balance, either granting the Liberals a reprieve, or thrusting the country into a summer election.
The results of those elections could not only mean a sharp turn to the right for Canadians on policy issues such as healthcare reform and immigration, but on international issues such as Canada's involvement in the war on terror.
The phone hasn't stopped ringing in the independent MP's office in Surrey, British Colombia, over the past few weeks. Constituents, members of Parliament of every political stripe - and even the prime minister - are courting and cajoling him. But so far, Cadman is keeping his cards close to his vest.
"I take this responsibility very seriously," says Cadman, who once belonged to a right-wing party before becoming an independent. "I probably won't know what I'm going to do until the very last moment. Not until I walk into the House to vote."
The fragility of Martin's minority government was on display last week as opposition parties effectively shut down Parliament. Joining forces as unlikely partners, the Conservative Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois voted to adjourn the House for three days, demonstrating that the Liberal Party is effectively no longer able to conduct the business of government. Martin responded by scheduling a showdown for Thursday.
Cadman is one of three independent MPs. In recent weeks, the other two independents have indicated they plan to support the Liberals, although one was decidedly more muted in his commitment this past week.
If the prime minister loses Thursday's vote, he has said he will dissolve Parliament and call for an election immediately.
The vote is certain to be a squeaker. Together, the Conservatives and the Bloc represent 153 votes in the House. The Liberals, meanwhile, have aligned themselves with the left-leaning New Demo- crats, giving them 151 votes. With the two sides essentially in a dead heat, the independent MP's votes are crucial if the Liberals are to avoid fresh elections.
Calls for an election have been growing louder for more than a month in the wake of a scandal at the heart of the Liberal Party. Liberal fortunes have been waning ever since a public inquiry began last fall looking into how public funds were used to promote national unity with Quebec by using Canadian symbols at sporting and cultural events. Though Martin is not implicated in the scandal, members of his party are alleged to have paid advertising firms to help them stamp out the separatist cause in Quebec. The allegations span several years, beginning in the late 1990s, while Jean Chrétien, Martin's predecessor, was prime minister.
University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman says that the atmosphere during recent months may indicate that the Canadian political landscape is shifting from a traditional two-party system toward a European model of coalition government. If an election were held today, Mr. Wiseman predicts that the Conservatives would narrowly beat the Liberals, replacing them with another minority government.
In that case, Stephen Harper would become the next prime minister. Mr. Harper has pushed for leaner government, a more competitive economy and better relations with the United States, partially by a building up Canada's beleaguered military.
If Parliament returns with a vote of no confidence, Martin's prospect of prevailing in the June elections would be hampered. It would also throw into question his future as party leader.
"There are a lot of long knives out there," Wiseman says. But he adds that there are no obvious successors waiting in the wings. "Who knows? Martin might decide to throw in the towel himself. Or he might stay on if he wins another minority."