Market crisis may shape the Canadian vote

Premier Harper is favored in Tuesday's vote, but slipped in polls over economic woes.

Chris Wattie/Reuters
Harper's dilemma: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen campaigning with his wife, Laureen, in Prince Edward Island Monday, has made several costly gaffes.

As Canadians head to the ballot box on Tuesday, the meltdown in global stock markets and a series of campaign blunders seem likely to deny conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper his goal of forming a majority government.

Polls over the weekend showed Harper's ruling Conservative Party of Canada leading with between 33 and 35 percent. It's enough to deliver another minority government, but a drop in support compared with recent weeks and far short of the 40 percent needed to form a majority.

In the first election in an industrialized nation since the market meltdown this month, Canada may test how the fate of politicians worldwide could depend on their response to the crisis. Additionally, Harper has made a number of missteps in Canada's in-house politics that may have proved costly.

Although the issues facing the Canadian financial market and real estate values have not neared US proportions, they still weigh heavily on voters. Less than two days before the election, one-third of Canadian voters were undecided.

"I think the most important thing is how we are going to earn our bread as a nation," says Bryan Bertie, a semiretired, transportation economist in Toronto. "Quite frankly, I think for many people, if we decide to vote at all, we'll be voting for the best of a bad lot."

It was a week of wild swings in the polls, as the Tories lost their lead, apparently sideswiped by the collapse of several US financial icons, with questions swirling as to whether Harper was doing enough to stem the fallout in Canada from the turmoil.

By the week's end, the party staged a slight comeback. The most recent Strategic Counsel poll puts the Tories at 33 percent of voter support with the Liberals trailing at 28 percent. Eighteen percent of Canadians said they planned to support the left-leaning New Democratic Party, while the Green Party and Bloc Quebecois had 11 percent and 10 percent of voter support, respectively.

The Conservatives seized power in January 2006, defeating a Liberal minority government by winning 127 of the 308 seats in Parliament. When the election was called in early September, Harper said he needed a stronger mandate from the electorate because the deeply fractured Parliament was ungovernable. As the prime minister hit the hustings, it looked as though a majority was within striking distance.

The party's strategy has been to portray Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as weak and ineffective. Analysts say the Liberal leader's campaign suffered early on because of Mr. Dion's struggle with English and his inability to effectively convey the benefits of his key policy plank, the green shift or carbon tax.

Still, Harper appears to have undermined his push to win new seats following a series of gaffes in recent weeks that have left voters with the impression that he's out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens. While Canadians watched in horror as tumbling stock markets decimated their retirement savings, Harper told voters not to worry because the downdraft presented "buying opportunities."

"[T]oo often the prime minister seems like a technocrat, struggling to connect on an emotional level with voters," says Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

Worse, plans for a major electoral breakthrough by the Conservatives in Quebec also appear to have fallen off the rails. Harper inadvertently unleashed a backlash from Quebec voters after he supported an earlier decision to cut $45-million to arts programs that Quebeckers see as crucial to maintaining their French culture. He also took a hard-line approach to youth offenders that proved out of step with the socially progressive province, Young says.

Harper spent Sunday trying to shore up votes in Quebec, a key province for any party looking to win a majority. "The leader of the bloc wants Quebeckers to stay in the hallways with their arms crossed," Harper said. "Send an MP to Ottawa who will be able to improve your economic situation, who will defend Quebec values."

Meanwhile, at an early Sunday morning rally in Scarborough, Ont., Dion said his party will restore Canada's status on the international stage. "The world wants Canada back ... and that is only possible with a progressive government, a Liberal government," he said.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking, chair of political science of Huron University College in London, Ontario, says he believes the Liberals could still upstage the Conservatives when the final votes are tallied. "With so many growing forces of opposition to the Conservatives, the question is whether Mr. Dion and the Liberals can suck up enough strategic votes from the Green [Party] and NDP to win.... It's not beyond the realm of possibilities," Professor Nesbitt-Larking says.

Meanwhile, the election comes as signs are growing that Canada is headed for a recession, notably the loss of more than 400,000 jobs in Ontario's manufacturing sector over the past few years. Still, unlike the US, banks are well capitalized and the federal government has been running a budget surplus for more than a decade.

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