Canada poised for vote that may deadlock parliament
June 1, 1997
Web posted at: 11:39 p.m. EDT (2339 GMT)
OTTAWA (CNN) -- From the Maritimes to the Yukon, Canadians go to the polls Monday amid indications they may be facing a minority federal government and an increasingly muddied political scene.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his centrist Liberal Party are widely expected to come out of Monday's election with the largest number of seats in the 301-member House of Commons. But with late polls showing the Liberals' support hovering right at 40 percent, they may not win the 151 seats they need for an outright majority.
Two parties with only regional strength -- the right-wing Reform Party in the Western provinces and the separatist Bloc Quebecois based in Quebec -- are expected to win the second and third largest number of seats.
Reform could win enough seats to displace the Bloc as the official opposition in parliament. The Bloc advocates separation of French-speaking Quebec from the rest of Canada, while Reform holds to the line that Quebec deserves no special status within the Canadian federation.
Canadians who want to keep Quebec in Canada worry that harsh anti-Quebec rhetoric from Reform and its leader, Preston Manning, might galvanize Quebec separatists -- and that a weakened Liberal government might then be hard-pressed to defeat another secession referendum, which narrowly failed in 1995.
"The idea of a minority government trying to run a [referendum] campaign with the opposition led by Preston Manning is simply horrific," says historian Jack Granatstein. "It would be a disaster."
Chretien called election 18 months early
Chretien, far ahead in the polls when the election campaign began in May, called the ballot 18 months early. The Liberals, who held 177 of the 295 seats in the last parliament, then seemed destined for another majority mandate.
But attacked by parties on the left and the right, Chretien has seen his support erode. Like French President Jacques Chirac, the prime minister may find that calling an election early turns out to be a losing gamble.
"Part of it is not surprising. When you have four candidates beating up on one candidate, it suggests that support for the Liberals will go down," said pollster John Zobgy.
Polls show that the Progressive Conservatives, who governed Canada for nine years until suffering a resounding defeat in 1993, have moved into second place nationally in the polls under their charismatic 38-year-old leader, Jean Charest.
Conservatives are expected to win 22 percent of the national vote, followed by Reform at 18 percent, the left-wing New Democratic Party at 11 percent and the Bloc, which doesn't run candidates outside of Quebec, at 9 percent.
But Conservative support is spread thinly across the country, while Reform's voters are concentrated in British Columbia and Alberta. Under the Canadian system, whoever gets the most votes in each constituency, or riding, wins. That means Reform will capture more parliamentary seats than the Conservatives and will similarly help the Bloc in Quebec.
Charest draws separatist support in Quebec
The Bloc's campaign got off to a gaffe-filled start, including a much snickered-about incident in which Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe donned a shower cap during a tour of a cheese factory.
Duceppe, a former Communist, has also alienated some of the Bloc's more conservative supporters with a leftist economic message. So Charest, who is from Quebec, is expected to pick up some separatist support.
But after its rocky start, the Bloc campaign recovered. On Sunday, Duceppe was claiming that his party had regained momentum.
The future status of Quebec has been one of the most divisive issues in the campaign. Manning and Reform were roundly criticized by the other candidates when they ran an ad saying politicians from Quebec had controlled the federal government for too long.
Chretien, Charest and Duceppe are all from Quebec, and the prime minister of Canada for 28 of the last 29 years has hailed from the province. Still, the assertion led to denunciations of Manning as "intolerant" and a "bigot," though it seemed to play well in his Western base.
Ontario key to Chretien's fate
The key to deciding whether Chretien wins a majority may lie in vote-rich Ontario, the largest province and a Liberal bastion.
Both Manning and Charest tried to make breakthroughs by campaigning in Ontario. But Chretien is expected to pick up almost all of the province's 103 seats, providing a strong base of support.
Still, the Liberals' reliance on Ontario shows how regionalized Canadian politics has become. Voters may wake up Tuesday morning with four or five regional parties in a deadlocked parliament, with even the Liberals finding it tough to speak for the nation as a whole.
Correspondent Ed Garsten and Reuters contributed to this report.
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