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Canada liberals defeated in elections { June 29 2004 }

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June 29, 2004
Liberals Keep Power in Close Election in Canada

TORONTO, June 28 - Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal Party survived a strong Conservative challenge on Monday to retain power, but they lost their majority in the House of Commons after the most rancorous election campaign in nearly a generation.

Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party leader who called for tax cuts and more military spending, hoped to begin a sea change in Canadian politics, but his campaign stalled in its final days. Urban voters feared that his victory could jeopardize social programs and bring to power social conservatives who opposed abortion and gay rights.

With ballots counted in most of the country, Liberals led or defeated the Conservatives in the races in 136 districts to 94. The separatist Bloc Québécois was winning in 55 districts, followed by the labor-aligned New Democratic party in 22. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation projected that a Liberal minority government would take power, the first minority government since 1979.

There have been many minority governments in Canadian history, but they tend to be short-lived. The Liberals can be expected to lean on the New Democrats, a party that is suspicious of free trade and is highly critical of United States foreign policy, to pass critical legislation. The three previous Liberal governments since 1993 won lopsided majorities in Parliament.

With unemployment falling and separatist tensions in Quebec mostly dormant, no single issue dominated the campaign. But Mr. Martin, 65, was hobbled by a series of Liberal Party scandals that produced a strong popular backlash. His unbending campaign to force Jean Chrétien to resign in December and to then take over the ruling party left many raw wounds, while two conservative parties managed to compete as a unified force.

Through much of the campaign, Mr. Martin appeared tired and unfocused.

Just before he set the election date last month, he visited President Bush at the White House and declared his intention to work more closely with Washington.

But when he returned home, he implicity criticized the United States by suggesting that Mr. Harper would make Canada more like its southern neighbor, with lower taxes and inadequate health care for the poor. Mr. Martin was also shaken by a recent tax increase by the Liberal provincial government in Ontario, the country's most populous province, only months after the party ran on a platform promising no new taxes.

In the end, Mr. Martin settled on the theme that the Liberals were the natural defenders of "Canadian values," like publicly financed health insurance and support for the Kyoto climate control accord. He pledged to install a nationwide child day care program.

"We really think this is the time for all progressives to come together," Mr. Martin told reporters at a campaign stop in Nova Scotia on Sunday, in a pitch to win back voters from the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois.

Mr. Harper, a 45-year-old former economics graduate student who has been representing Calgary, set up his run by skillfully uniting the Canadian Alliance Party with the more centrist Progressive Conservative Party last October to form the new Conservative Party, and then running a moderate campaign.

While he pledged to abandon gun registry regulations, which are unpopular in the west, and to cut income taxes and to return more control to provincial governments, he managed to steer clear of pronouncing controversial views on gay rights and abortion. But the campaign was hobbled by local Conservative candidates who stated views on gay marriage and other issues that frightened young voters and women, particularly in urban areas.

Mr. Harper tried to ride a wave of dissatisfaction with the Liberals. "We are going to change the system, we are going to make things better, we are going to clean up the mess," Mr. Harper told a rally in Edmonton on Sunday.

The defining point of contention for many voters was a scandal involving the disbursement by the government of about $75 million to Quebec advertising firms friendly to the Liberal Party as part of an antiseparatist campaign. The country's auditor general released a report soon after Mr. Martin took power, saying that the firms did little or nothing for the money, and the opposition said it was all a kickback scheme to line the the Liberals' campaign war chest.

Mr. Martin insisted that he knew nothing of the payoffs even though he was finance minister at the time, and that he intended to reengineer Liberal rule to make it more accountable and democratic. But he called the election before a final investigation could be completed, provoking a good deal of popular cynicism, especially in his home province of Quebec, and the Bloc Québécois surged as a protest vehicle.

"Outside Quebec, the scandal was all about pandering to Quebecers and wasting money on Quebec," said Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill University Institute for the Study of Canada. "And inside Quebec, it confirmed to Quebecers that the Liberal Party was corrupt and trying to buy Quebecers."

Political scientists do not see the wilting of Liberal support as a fundamental shift in the country's political orientation. Polls were extremely volatile, and there were indications that a large number of voters did not decide how to vote until the last minute.

A Leger Marketing poll of more than 1,000 people released Sunday indicated that nearly one in four voters in Quebec, the second most populous province, said they could change their minds about who to vote for on election day.

The fickleness of the voters was at least in part a measure of the failure of the two major leaders to define themselves and offer a compelling message.

"Martin wants us to believe he is the Liberal Party Gorbachev, but people don't believe it," said Michel C. Auger, a columnist for La Journal de Montreal. "Harper said you shouldn't elect these guys, but he didn't say why people should vote for him. He couldn't quite close the sale."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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