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Canadian liberals face loss after 12 years { December 2006 }

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Canadian Liberals face loss after 12 years in power
Sun Jan 22, 2006 3:49 PM ET

By Randall Palmer

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canadian political leaders on Sunday made one last cross-country dash on the eve of an election expected to oust the ruling Liberals, move Canada to the right and improve ties with the United States.

With polls showing a steady lead of 7 to 12 percentage points, the Conservatives sounded increasingly confident, though it looked like they would fall short of a majority in Parliament and have to depend on other parties.

"After 13 years and four failed mandates, the era of Liberal arrogance is ending," local candidate Michael Smith told a Winnipeg rally as he introduced Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who made stops in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia on Sunday.

It is the second election in just 18 months and the third since late 2000. The Liberals -- who took power in late 1993 -- campaigned on their fiscal record, reminding people the economy was booming and trying to portray Harper as an extremist who wanted to scrap gay marriage and abortion.

But Prime Minister Paul Martin, who spent Sunday in British Columbia before flying to his home province of Quebec, seems likely to fall victim to voter fatigue with the Liberals and a major kickback scandal that hit his government shortly after he took power in December 2003.

"Only a new government can turn the page on the past 13 years of scandal and inaction and get on with addressing the real concerns of ordinary working people," Harper said. "We have an opportunity with a new government, and only a new government, to bring together East and West, English and French, city and country, new and old Canadians."

Some polls suggest the Liberals will get their lowest percentage of votes in any election since independence in 1867, even lower than the 28 percent they collected in 1984.

If Harper wins, it will be his reward for uniting Canada's two fractious right-wing parties at the end of 2003 and creating the Conservative Party.

Harper would be the first prime minister to have spent most of his life in the conservative Western province of Alberta. He promises to lower taxes, clamp down on crime, clean up government, cut health waiting times and return some power from the federal government to Canada's 10 provinces.


He also wants to ease tensions with Washington. Martin has consistently attacked the United States over a softwood lumber trade dispute and often says Canada must shun what he calls "American-style" health care.

Martin insists the Liberals can still win, saying more Canadians are waking up to what he says is an agenda Harper inherited from extremist U.S. conservative movements.

"The vast majority of Canadians do not agree with the right-wing view of Stephen Harper," he told reporters in the Ontario town of Brampton on Saturday.

Although Harper promises he has no plans to clamp down on abortion, he says he will ask Parliament if it wants to scrap a law allowing gay marriage.

Martin was brought down in November over a public inquiry which found that Liberals in the French-speaking province of Quebec took kickbacks in exchange for government contracts.

The probe shredded Liberal support in Quebec and boosted the fortunes of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which wants independence for the province. When the campaign started, the Bloc said it would win more than 50 percent of the vote in Quebec and thereby show the province wanted independence.

But Harper's steady rise in the polls has spilled over into Quebec and could head off another national-unity crisis by eating into Bloc support. A referendum on Quebec independence in 1995 failed by the narrowest of margins.

Because the Conservatives have no natural allies in Parliament, they will have to govern issue by issue if they win. Minority governments in Canada rarely last more than 18 months though in this case some analysts think the Bloc will not want to trigger a quick new election as anger over the Liberal scandal will have subsided.

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren)

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