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Vote topples Canadian government

Election set for January 23

Opposition leader Stephen Harper speaks to supporters after the no-confidence vote Monday.


Paul Martin

(CNN) -- After months of political instability, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin fell Monday evening when three opposition parties united to topple him with a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons.

Martin's center-left Liberal Party had been dogged by a corruption scandal. It will now face voters in an election set for January 23 that could end 12 years of Liberal rule in America's largest trading partner. The election forces a campaign over the Christmas holidays that the prime minister argues most Canadians don't want.

After losing the vote, a smiling and upbeat Martin rallied his Liberal caucus before they return to their home constituencies to "get fitted for snowshoes."

"The decision about the future of our government will be made by Canadians. They will judge us, and they will judge our performance," said Martin. He said his party would run on its record of "hard work and good management."

Addressing his troops, Conservative leader Stephen Harper called Monday "an historic evening."

"This is not just just the end of a tired, directionless, scandal-plagued government. It's the start of a bright new future for this great country," Harper said.

The opposition Conservatives, the leftist New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois joined forces to bring down Martin's government, which had lost its majority in an election last year. Monday's final vote was 171-133.

The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois had been threatening for months to bring down Martin and force an election. But until Monday, his government had survived with the support of the New Democrats and a handful of independents.

After the vote, New Democratic leader Jack Layton accused the Liberals of "stubbornness" and "inflexibility," saying Martin's government had said no to "good ideas on key issues" that his party had put forward.

The Liberals have run Canada since 1993. Recent polls give them the edge over Harper's Conservatives, but with fewer than 40 percent support among those polled, indicating that another minority government is likely.

Polls also show that in vote-rich Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois is well ahead of the other parties, making the task of assembling a majority even more difficult.

The leader of the Bloc, Gilles Duceppe, predicted voters in mostly French-speaking Quebec would issue "a judgment, and a very harsh one" on the Liberals in the wake of a corruption scandal that has particularly angered people in the province.

The Liberals took big losses in the House of Commons in June 2004 amid what was known as the sponsorship scandal, in which government money was paid to advertising firms to shore up support for Canadian unity in French-speaking Quebec.

Investigators determined most of the money went to firms with Liberal connections, with little or no work done in exchange, but placed most of the blame on former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Martin was cleared of wrongdoing and issued a dramatic apology on behalf of his government in April. The Liberals agreed to pay $1.1 million back to the government after an initial report was issued November 1.

But Harper's Tories have readied a good-government platform for the upcoming vote, with Harper vowing to curtail the influence of high-priced lobbyists in Ottawa if he becomes prime minister.

Martin had proposed elections in March, after the expected release of a second report on the sponsorship scandal. He blasted the opposition earlier this month for moving toward a quick election, because the campaign would take place over the holidays -- "when Canadians least want one."

Martin, who became prime minister in December 2003 after Chretien retired, became the fifth Canadian leader to lose a confidence vote. The last was Conservative Joe Clark, in 1979. He was replaced by Liberal Pierre Trudeau.

The Liberals' political difficulties mark a sharp turnaround in Canadian politics. Just five years ago, with the political right divided between two rival parties, the Liberals coasted to a clear majority for their third consecutive election win.

But the right has since unified into the new Conservative Party, which, coupled with the sponsorship scandal, helped cost the Liberals their majority in last year's election.

The Liberals hold 133 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, compared with 98 for the Conservatives, 53 for the Bloc Quebecois and 18 for the New Democrats. There are also four independents and two vacancies.

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