Canadians face bitter vote

The winter election - the first in 26 years - will feature mud as much as snow.

Canadians are bracing for a bitter winter election after a coalition of Conservatives, Quebec separatists, and far-left progressives toppled the scandal-plagued Liberal government with a no-confidence vote on Monday night.

Opposition leaders pushed for the Jan. 23 election, hoping to capitalize on a corruption scandal that has shaken public confidence in the Liberal Party that has ruled since 1993. Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Liberals, meanwhile, will try to persuade voters that Conservatives and their leader Stephen Harper are too right-wing for Canada.

The election contours are unlikely to expose major rifts in policy, given that Canada's economy is strong and few issues have become major rallying cries. Rather, candidates are girding for mud-slinging and personal attacks that could - along with the snow, ice, and subzero temperatures of the first winter campaign in 26 years - drive down turnout.

"The subterranean issues are really about leadership," says Robert Young, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario. "That's where the gloves will come off."

Neither party is poised to claim an outright majority in Parliament. Liberals lost their majority in the last election, 17 months ago. The most likely result this time is another minority government, in which the ruling party has a plurality but not a majority of seats.

The Liberals have a slight edge now, according to several polls. The Ipsos-Reid poll, taken just after the no-confidence vote, found that Conservatives and Liberals were in a dead heat - 31 percent support for each, with a 3 percentage point margin of error.

"It really is too close to call," says Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs polling in Toronto. "People don't want to vote for the Liberals, but the problem is whether or not people are willing to accept Stephen Harper as an alternative."

Harper's Conservative Party favors lower taxes and a more decentralized government, and has criticized the Liberals' spending. The Tories, as they're also known, generally oppose same-sex marriage (which is legal in Canada) and are more conservative on social issues. However, the Canadian Conservatives' support for child-care subsidies and the public healthcare system put them to the left of US Republicans.

Although a minority Conservative government wouldn't have enough support to push through sweeping changes, Mr. Young says Canadians would definitely notice a difference. For example, Conservatives could team up with the Bloc Quebecois to decentralize Canadian government, something both parties support.

"There could be very substantial changes even with a conservative minority," Young says.

So far, however, Harper's pitch has been focused on the ethics of the ruling party.

The Liberals' woes stem from what's known in Canada as the sponsorship scandal - revelations that tens of millions of dollars intended for national unity programs in Quebec during the 1990s were mis-spent as political graft and kickbacks. Justice John Gomery, who is leading an investigation into the scandal, released a report earlier this month exonerating Martin, who was Finance Minister at the time. The report blamed former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien for lax oversight and a "culture of entitlement" among Liberals who worked on the corrupt program.

Opposition leaders say this "culture of entitlement" has infected the Liberal Party - Martin included - and they're asking voters to choose them for a fresh start.

While the sponsorship scandal is enough to prompt an election, experts say it's not enough to win.

"The Conservatives are going to have to have more than just scandal to win new voters," says Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. "The Conservatives' smartest game plan is 'time for a change' and 'you can't trust the Liberals.' "

In recent elections, trust had been the calling card of the Liberals, who successfully painted Conservatives as wolves in sheep's clothing, harboring a secret right-wing agenda. It's a theme already being sounded by Martin.

"Stephen Harper sees no positive role for government, not in improving the lives of Canadians, not even in standing up for Canada," Martin said. "We will fight to move our country forward, not backward."

The Liberals support social programs and accuse Conservatives of wanting to gut the public healthcare system. In the days leading up to the no-confidence vote, the Liberal government announced billions of dollars in new spending on everything from job-training programs, aboriginal services, and rural infrastructure.

The Liberals' campaign this winter may include attempting to tie Harper to US President George Bush, who is deeply unpopular in Canada. Martin hinted at such when he called Harper a "neoconservative" on Monday night. Both leaders have a fine line to walk as they talk about US relations. Canadians want good trade relations with the US, but they don't want their leaders seeming too cozy with the Bush administration.

Harper could also be hurt by his temporary association with the Bloc Quebecois, especially with a possible Quebec independence vote looming in the next few years. Martin has taken every opportunity to use the words "separatist" and "Conservative" in the same sentence.

Beyond the rhetorical jabs at his opponent, Martin can tout a strong economic record: a 30-year low in unemployment, low inflation rates, and eight years of federal budget surpluses.

But there's no doubt Martin is as vulnerable as he's ever been. He was booed by a stadium crowd during the opening ceremonies of Sunday's Grey Cup, Canada's version of the Super Bowl.

The average life span of minority governments in Canada is 18 months - meaning that whoever wins this time probably shouldn't get too comfortable.

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