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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 18:20 GMT
Q&A: Canada's political crisis
Canada is to hold a general election on 23 January 2006, after its minority Liberal government lost a vote of confidence in parliament. The crisis was triggered by the party's involvement in a corruption scandal in the province of Quebec.

What is the financial scandal all about?

In February 2004, Canada's auditor-general issued a report which said that in the late 1990s, the governing Liberals systematically channelled at least C$100m ($85m; 49m) from a C$250m government programme to advertising and communication agencies with ties to the Liberal Party, for little or no work.

The money was earmarked to pay for advertising and sponsorship of sporting and cultural events to promote Canadian unity (the affair is referred in the Canadian media as the sponsorship scandal).

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin
Mr Martin has lost a no-confidence vote

The fund was launched shortly after the primarily French-speaking province of Quebec voted in 1995 by only the thinnest of margins to stay in Canada.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said much of what she found was a "shocking" waste of Canadian taxpayers' money, and that she was "deeply disturbed" by what had happened.

The programme appeared to be designed to generate commissions for these companies while hiding the source of the funding and "true substance of the transactions", she said.

An independent inquiry set up by Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was Finance Minister at the time, found that the party had used the programme as a means of obtaining illegal election funds.

Headed by Judge John Gomery, the inquiry is expected to issue its final report and recommendations by February 2006.

Who was involved?

The Liberal Party said the corruption was the work of a few isolated rogues. The opposition Conservative Party said there was evidence of systematic corruption within the Liberal Party.

The Gomery interim report found implicated a number of Liberal Party officials in the scandal - among them former bureaucrat Chuck Guite, former Minister of Public Works Alfonso Gagliano, and Liberal Party fundraiser Jacques Corriveau.

Prime Minister Martin was cleared of any involvement, as was then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

However, the inquiry said that as the programme was run from Mr Chretien's office, he was responsible for "the defective manner" in which its initiatives were implemented.

Mr Chretien has accused the judge of political bias and said he would seek a judicial review.

What has been the impact?

Voters' anger over the scandal is believed to have cost the Liberal Party its parliamentary majority in federal elections in June 2004.

In a bid to appease voters, Mr Martin promised to call a general election after the final results and recommendations of the inquiry were made public in February 2006.

However, the opposition parties have repeatedly sought to capitalise on public anger, and had been pushing for the government to resign. In a no-confidence vote in May, the Liberals survived by just one vote.

The Liberals needed the support of the opposition New Democratic Party to survive confidence votes. The party withdrew its support in November.

The Conservatives gave the government an ultimatum to dissolve parliament in January and hold elections in February, which Mr Martin rejected.

The government finally fell in a confidence vote on 28 November, setting the scene for a Christmas campaign.

How might the campaign unfold?

The three main opposition parties - the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Quebecois - have said they will focus on clean government in their campaign.

Observers say the campaign is likely to be bitterly fought, on the evidence of the heated rhetoric flying around in recent weeks.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper said after four terms in office, the Liberals have become a party of sleaze and privilege.

A recent poll in the Globe and Mail newspaper suggests the Liberals have the support of 35% of voters - 6% ahead of the Conservatives, but not enough to lead a majority government.

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