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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 10:38 GMT
Canadian election gamble
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Stephen Harper, leader of Canada's Conservative Party
Stephen Harper's image is improving among Canadians
Canada's opposition parties are taking a gamble by forcing an election in the middle of winter when much of the country is blanketed in snow and temperatures of -20C are not uncommon.

The election, set for 23 January, will be dominated by the same issue as the last election just 17 months ago - a corruption scandal that has dogged the Liberal party.

Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority Liberal government had failed to shake off the scandal, which dates from a previous administration.

In the late 1990s, at least C$100m ($81m; 43m) of government money that should have been spent on promoting national unity in the primarily French-speaking province of Quebec was instead diverted to the coffers of Liberal-friendly advertising agencies.

Even though Mr Martin, who was finance minister at the time, was exonerated by a recent public inquiry, the opposition Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, has kept up the heat, accusing the Liberals of being irredeemably tainted.

'Bright new future'

Mr Harper has pledged to campaign for clean, accountable government.

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

He likened the Liberals to "the thief who cries fire in a crowded restaurant so that when no-one's looking he can clear out the cash register".

For his part, Mr Martin did not mention the scandal but stuck instead to robustly defending his record. He said Canada was enjoying the lowest rate of unemployment in 30 years and had paid down $60bn of debt.

"We have delivered eight straight budget surpluses helping to keep the economy strong for Canadians. And there is no other G7 country that can say that," Mr Martin said.

He urged his party faithful to get their snowshoes on.

Mr Martin's government fell after a vote of no confidence by all three opposition parties.

The right-wing Conservatives, the left-wing New Democrats and the Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois have very different agendas, but they agreed that they did not want the Liberals to dictate the timing of an election.

'Same old campaigning'

James Travers, the National Affairs correspondent for the Toronto Star newspaper, says the election will be very similar to the last election.

"The leaders are the same, the issues are the same and once again we're going to have the same old down-and-dirty gritty kind of campaign focused on personalities rather than public policy issues," he said.

The challenge for Mr Harper's Conservatives is to shake off their image as neo-conservatives who are going to run against Canada's strong sense of social equality, Mr Travers says. But he adds that after 12 years and four mandates, it will become increasingly hard for the Liberals to appear fresh.

"There's a certain percentage of Canadians who have voted Liberal for most of their adult lives, who are now simply saying they cannot do it again," he says.

"But whether or not they will just stay home, or whether they will rally to the Conservative opposition, or the New Democratic Party remains to be seen."

The story is somewhat different in French-speaking Quebec, where Quebeckers have turned their backs on the Liberals and have voted solidly for the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

It would be remarkable if any of the other opposition parties made much headway there.

Early polling shows the Liberals a few points ahead of the Conservatives. Paul Martin remains the most popular of the leaders, but he is perceived as dragging around the baggage of the Liberal Party behind him.

Meanwhile the image of Stephen Harper among Canadians as a cold, remote policy wonk appears to be softening. One poll suggests that Canadians are less likely to regard him as a "scary figure" with "a hidden agenda" as they did at the last election.

Nevertheless the polls suggest the Conservatives still have to work at demonstrating that they are a government-in-waiting and to prove to Canadians that a Christmas campaign was all really worth it.

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Scandal anger mounts in Canada
10 Apr 05 |  Americas
Q&A: Canada's political crisis
01 Nov 05 |  Americas

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