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Monday, 3 June, 2002, 03:38 GMT 04:38 UK
Battle at heart of Canadian politics
Paul Martin, former Canadian finance minister
Martin has strong backing in the Liberal party


Canadian politics is witnessing an unprecedented battle for control of the governing Liberal party.

For years the finance minister Paul Martin has been plotting to replace his personal and political rival Jean Chretien as prime minister.

Jean Chretien, Canadian PM
Chretien has the reputation of being a confrontational politician who loves a fight
Now he is outside the cabinet, Mr Martin is almost certain to launch an outright bid for the leadership of the Liberals from the backbenches, where he will draw on his immense support at the grassroots of the party.

Speaking after his removal he refused to discuss his future plans, but in the months ahead he will undoubtedly face mounting pressure to launch a challenge.

Intrigue and scandals

The rivalry between the two men has persisted despite them working successfully together for nine years.

The timing of the removal of Mr Martin is connected to the weeks of political intrigue and financial scandals that have engulfed the government.


This is a very serious development and it could split the Liberal party

Richard Schultz, McGill University
Senior ministers have faced accusations of cronyism and corruption for awarding contracts to promote the government in independence-minded Quebec to companies making substantial donations to the Liberal party.

At least three are now being investigated by the police. And earlier this month the defence minister Art Eggleton was sacked after giving a contract to a former girlfriend.

Before the scandals started emerging 68-year-old Mr Chretien gave the nod to would-be challengers for his job to organise campaigns and raise money, and that he would step down in the medium term.

But last week in an effort to unify his party and control the scandals, Mr Chretien told those challengers to fold their campaigns, and that he would stay at least until the party's regular leadership review in February, and probably longer.

'Party split possible'

Mr Martin could not accept those terms, and he is now on the backbenches.

Richard Schultz, professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, says that the country has not seen such a conflict between a cabinet minister and a prime minister for the past century, if at all.


It's hardball now. Paul is likely to continue to behave in a statesmanlike way, but he has a lot of supporters across Canada and they'll be working very hard for him

Bob Dobie, Paul Martin supporter
"This is a very serious development and it could split the Liberal party, even if Mr Martin stays within and launches a challenge for the leadership of the party," he says.

"Even before this I'd been thinking that Martin had to resign at some point and fight a proper campaign outside cabinet. Mr Chretien lives by past animosities and grudges, and he was afraid that Mr Martin would start attacking him more and more openly."

Professor Schultz says as the party's leadership review approaches, the sniping from supporters of Martin and Chretien will become increasingly intense.

Chretien's options

"By that stage, Mr Chretien will be considering several options; resigning before the review, because I think he has much less support in the party than Mr Martin, or staying on and aiming to beat Mr Martin in the review, and possibly then resign shortly afterwards, leaving time for another leader - not Mr Martin - to establish themselves before the next general election," Mr Schultz said.

That latter timetable would also allow 68-year-old Mr Chretien to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his arrival in the house of Commons in 1963.

But supporters of Mr Martin are confident they will win the day.

"It's hardball now," says Bob Dobie, a party organiser in his Montreal constituency.

"Paul is likely to continue to behave in a statesmanlike way, but he has a lot of supporters across Canada and they'll be working very hard for him to ensure he gets the support he needs at the leadership review."

Fighting on

Mr Chretien has the reputation of being a confrontational politician who loves a fight. Last week he dismissed the current scandals, saying that a few million dollars may have gone astray, but it was worth it in order to keep Quebec within the country.

With problems mounting he may feel invigorated and ready to battle on to keep his job, possibly emulating his 19th century hero Wilfred Laurier by winning a fourth consecutive spell as prime minister.

That may not please Canadians, who indicated in a recent poll that they'd prefer Mr Chretien to step down. Critics say the party currently lacks a sense of direction. It remains to be seen if the divided and relatively weak opposition parties can make the most of the government's problems.

See also:

31 May 02 | Americas
21 Jan 02 | Americas
27 May 02 | Country profiles
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