With economy slow, Canada to hold early elections

The ruling Conservative Party hopes to win at least 30 more seats to secure a House of Commons majority.

chris wattie/reuters
Comeback? Stéphane Dion in Ottawa last week heralded elections to fight Conservative policies.
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP
Seeking the majority: Prime Minister Harper called an election Sunday at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper dissolved Parliament Sunday and called an election next month in what some see as a risky gamble to turn his minority Conservative government into a majority before the country's economic outlook grows bleaker.

Canadians are expected to head to the polls on Oct. 14, marking a rare occurrence: a time when Canadians and Americans are headed to the polls within weeks of each other. Some pundits say the early date set by Canada's right-leaning party is tied to worries that Canadians may be swept up in the message of change articulated by Sen. Barack Obama if the Democratic leader is elected president of the United States in November.

Mr. Harper's Conservative Party, which wrested power from the scandal-plagued Liberals in Jan. 2006, is hoping to win at least 30 more seats, securing the required 155 of 308 seats in the House of Commons to hold a majority. This will be the third election in Canada in four years. In 2005, the governing Liberal Party was reelected with a minority government, but lost the confidence of the House of Commons on a budgetary amendment in 2006.

The Liberals, led by Stéphane Dion, have helped to prop up the Conservative government and keep Parliament in business by abstaining from voting on key legislation. Owing to their minority status, the Conservatives have had to temper policies, pushing through a more moderate agenda. But the informal agreement between the two parties appears to have crumbled following a meeting last week.

Harper is now portraying a deeply fractured Parliament as ungovernable, suggesting that his party has no choice but to turn to voters for a fresh mandate. "Mr. Dion provided no assurances of any kind about this Parliament continuing very long," Harper told reporters last Wednesday.

Anticipating an economic downturn

But few political observers buy that explanation. They say the call for elections is a response to looming economic woes. Canada's economy grew just 0.1 percent between April and June and housing prices are weakening. Further stagnation is expected in the coming year. "If the Conservatives wait much longer, they may have a terrible economic problem to deal with, which will work against them," explains Akaash Maharaj, a Canadian politics and international relations expert at the University of Toronto.

A poll released last week puts the Conservatives within striking distance of a majority. The slowing domestic economy was pegged as the most important issue by 20 percent of Canadians, while 38 percent identified the Conservatives as the best party to manage the problem.

But some analysts are skeptical that the Conservatives can prevail with a majority. According to Geoffrey Stevens, former editor of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper who now teaches politics at Wilfrid Laurier University, the move demonstrates Harper's "naked ambition." By making a bold bid for a majority government, Harper appears to be willing to risk not only his career, but also the Conservative Party's future.

Undoubtedly, if neither party succeeds in eking out a stronger position in Parliament, both Harper and Dion will be forced to consider their future.

Unlike Americans who have strong feelings about their party leaders, Canadians don't appear to be inspired by either political rival, says Mr. Maharaj. Harper is seen as a micro-manager with a difficult relationship with the media, while Dion, a francophone from Quebec, is viewed as an intellectual who struggles with the English language. "It's a dismal collection," adds Mr. Stevens. "We don't have Obama. We don't have anyone like Pierre Trudeau. There's nothing refreshing about any of these politicians."

Partisan politics

The Conservative government has been one of the more long-lasting minority governments in Canadian history. While the New Democratic Party (NDP) had hoped to bring down the government last year, the Liberals, struggling to raise funds, didn't want to force an election.

Now, both Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton are hesitant to support a Conservative agenda. Policies including anticrime measures aimed at youth and further cuts to cultural programs – while popular with the Conservative voter base – are at odds with the Liberal agenda.

Over the past two weeks, the Conservatives have also come under fire after a deadly outbreak of listeriosis, which killed at least 12 people after they consumed deli meats from a Toronto meat plant. During the crisis, Canadians learned for the first time about Harper's recent attempts to deregulate the meat industry. The prime minister said last week that a public inquiry into the outbreak would be held after a general election is called. But the opposition says the announcement aims to deflect questions about how the Conservative government's policy changes may have contributed to the deadly outbreak.

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