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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 January 2006, 06:58 GMT
Canada's right returns from wilderness
By Sarah Shenker
BBC News website, Toronto

Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Teskey
Mr Harper, here with wife Laureen, transformed his public image
The Conservative Party supporters in Stephen Harper's heartland of Calgary, Alberta, have plenty to celebrate this election night.

When they wake up on Tuesday, their leader will be on his way to Ottawa to become the country's first Conservative prime minister in more than 12 years.

The party's years in the wilderness began with Kim Campbell's humiliating defeat in the 1993 election when the party won just two seats in the House of Commons.

Now, after Canada's second election in 18 months, Mr Harper's party has taken seats from the ruling Liberal Party in its traditional territories in Ontario, and from the separatist Bloc Quebecois in French-speaking Quebec.

Messages

And his campaign is being hailed for the ease with which it has defeated the Liberals of Prime Minister Paul Martin.

People decided [Harper] is competent and he does not seem to be covetous of political power
Allan Bonner,
political consultant

"The Conservatives ran an excellent, old-style campaign with a message a day," says Toronto-based political consultant Allan Bonner.

"Nobody remembers the policies, but they remember that there was a message."

Meanwhile, for the first weeks of an eight-week campaign that spanned the Christmas holidays, the Liberals "sat on their hands", Mr Bonner says.

A key element of Mr Harper's campaign was his transformation in the public eye from extreme US-style, right-wing politician with a hidden agenda, to a progressive conservative who had a clear vision for the country.

"No-one is dying to go have a beer with him or talk hockey, but people decided that he is competent and he does not seem to be covetous of political power," Mr Bonner says.

Voters in Calgary
Voters in Stephen Harper's Alberta may benefit from his win
"People thought the Liberals seemed to feel entitled to it."

Mr Harper was helped along the way by long-running public anger at a financial scandal involving the Liberal Party, including allegations that the Liberal Party in Quebec received kickbacks from government contracts.

"I travelled coast to coast in this campaign, and the words I heard almost everywhere was the need for change," says James Travers of the Toronto Star newspaper, which backed the Liberals.

Many Liberal supports have accused Mr Harper of muzzling some of his party's more right-wing members during the campaign in a bid to capture the centre ground.

"He has not changed his real ideas, but he has learned from the mistakes of the last campaign," says Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who once ran for mayor of Toronto for the Liberal Party.

Cultural change

Nonetheless, Mr Harper's promises to cut taxes and tackle corruption and violent crime "made sense to ordinary people with mortgages and kids going to school", James Travers says.

Quebec voters are not angry at Canada but at the Liberal Party
James Travers, Toronto Star

Mr Harper's victory also means the country's political centre of gravity looks set to lurch to the west. Although born in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, Mr Harper was raised in oil-rich Alberta, the country's wealthiest province and a traditional Tory heartland.

It is a significant cultural change in a country where leaders traditionally hail from Ontario or Quebec.

However, Colby Cosh, a columnist with the National Post and Western Standard newspapers and a Conservative supporter, says Mr Harper's victory will not change the balance between provinces so much as "re-empower them at the expense of the federal government".

Mr Harper's commitment to small government will also affect relations with Quebec, which has held two referendums on independence, in 1980 and 1995.

Federalists had feared that a drop in Liberal support in the province over the financial scandals would bolster the Bloc Quebecois and its provincial counterpart, the Parti Quebecois, raising the spectre of another referendum.

Paul Martin
Paul Martin "is going out as a footnote of history"
But the strong Conservative showing "proves that Quebec voters are not angry at Canada but at the Liberal Party", James Travers says.

"It is a positive sign that Quebec is interested in the federalist point of view."

After 18 months of instability, Canadians had been hoping for a period of relative calm, but with a minority government, that is not a given.

Attention will now turn to the alliances the Conservative Party might seek.

A deal with the leftist New Democratic Party may not give it enough of a hold on power. NDP leader Jack Layton has so far refused to be drawn on whether he would consider co-operating with the Tories.

And it is hard to imagine an alliance between a federalist party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

Either way, says Mr Clarkson, Stephen Harper will have to govern down the middle and temper his policies accordingly.

For Paul Martin the outlook is bleaker.

A highly successful finance minister credited for Canada's strong economy, his performance as prime minister since 2003 has disappointed many.

It was his dream for decades to be prime minister, Mr Bonner says.

"The human tragedy of this story is that he is going out as a footnote of history. But that's politics."


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