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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 June, 2004, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
'Exquisite ambiguity' in Canada poll
By Daniel Lak
BBC News

After a bruising five-week campaign, Canadians will be voting in a general election on Monday with little or no certainty about their next government.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin
Mr Martin called early elections just months after taking office

The country's two major political parties, the left-of-centre Liberals, and the more right-wing Conservatives, are neck-and-neck in every major opinion poll.

As veteran political columnist John Ibbitson wrote recently in the Globe and Mail newspaper: "The people of Canada will elect an exquisitely ambiguous parliament. No-one will know for sure who will be prime minister."

Or - perhaps more accurately - which of two men will be the head of government.

The choices are the incumbent Paul Martin, a Liberal, and Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Waiting in the wings as potential kingmakers in a hung parliament are Jack Layton of the left-wing New Democrats, and Gilles Duceppe whose Bloc Quebecois works for the eventual separation of Quebec from the Canadian federation.

Whether a hung parliament would lead to a minority government or a coalition is again uncertain.

Martin's tough choices

Canadian elections have produced hung parliaments eight times previously but rarely have parties made formal agreements to govern together. They may have to if this result is as close as polls indicate.

Canadians are treating this election more like a horse race than a political event
The man who looks set to lose the most is Mr Martin, whether or not he emerges as leader of Canada's next government.

He took over as prime minister when the wily political veteran, Jean Chretien, retired late last year.

Mr Martin inherited a healthy majority in parliament, but a financial scandal in Quebec quickly weakened his once lofty approval ratings.

Mr Martin had pledged to seek a mandate from the people if he won the Liberal leadership and he was left with little choice but to call this election.

He was clearly hoping his record as Canada's finance minister - budgets in surplus and a stable, growing economy - would eclipse the scandal. It has not.

Harper's steady support

Mr Harper's Conservative party was formed last year in a merger between two right-of-centre parties.

Newly-elected Conservative Party of Canada leader Stephen Harper
New to the job - Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper

In this, his first campaign as leader, Mr Harper has portrayed himself as moderate and centrist.

For example, he has promising to strengthen Canada's Medicare system, which provides free medical care to every citizen.

Although he has had to distance himself from remarks by members of his party opposing same-sex marriage, his overall support in opinion polls has stayed steady enough to leave him confident of winning more than 100 of the 308 seats in the Canadian parliament.

'Dead heat'

Political observers say Canadians will cast their ballots emotionally in this election, voting not for policies or even leaders, but out of anger at incumbents or to prevent a candidate or party from winning.

The resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec - for example - seems to be more about anti-Liberal feeling in the province, rather than a resurrection of the perpetually thorny issue of separation of the French speaking province from Canada.

It is a dead heat as the finish lines approaches, and Canadians are treating this election more like a horse race than a political event.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"Prime Minister Paul Martin is campaigning hard right down to the wire"



SEE ALSO:
Confusion clouds Canada election
21 Jun 04 |  Americas
Heat on in Canada election race
16 Jun 04 |  Americas
Canadian prime minister sworn in
12 Dec 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Canada
12 Dec 03 |  Country profiles


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