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Canada premier plays economy card

By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Stephen Harper
Support for Mr Harper's Conservatives has grown recently

Instead of waiting for the opposition parties to bring down his 31 month-old minority government, Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to pull the plug himself.

Mr Harper has called the election for 14 October, hoping to either bolster his minority, or obtain a majority government, for which he would need to be rewarded with 28 more seats in the Canadian parliament.

Some early opinion polls suggest he is within striking distance of doing so.

Mr Harper made the formal election announcement as he left the Governor-General's residence in Ottawa. He quickly positioned himself as the leader most capable of steering his country through potentially difficult economic times.

"Canadians will choose a government to look out for their interests at a time of global economic trouble," Mr Harper told the gathered press.

"They will choose between direction and uncertainty, between common sense and risky experiments. Between steadiness and recklessness."

Canada has been relatively sheltered from the economic downturn south of the border in the United States. But with both countries each other's largest trading partners, most financial analysts say that it is only a matter of time before Canada feels the pinch.

Growing support

Kady O'Malley is a Canadian political columnist for Macleans.ca. She says there are a number of theories as to why Prime Minister Harper decided to call the snap election but that economic uncertainty is one of the most likely.

Stephen Dion
I love being the underdog. I love being underestimated
Stephen Dion
Liberal leader

"If he waited any longer, it was felt that Canada would really start to feel the effects of a slowdown in the US and that this could put him in a difficult position because incumbent governments, rightly or wrongly, tend to be blamed if there is a serious downturn in the economy," said Ms O'Malley.

An opinion poll released over the past few days found that support for the Conservatives has grown over the past few weeks.

The Environics poll found that 38% of Canadians would vote for the Conservatives; 28% for the Liberals; 19% for the centre-left New Democratic Party, 8% for the Quebec nationalist party The Bloc Quebecois and 7% for the Greens. Mr Harper also scored high points for leadership.

Stephane Dion, the somewhat beleaguered leader of the main Liberal opposition party, is acknowledging he faces a huge and difficult challenge.

"I love it. I love being the underdog. I love being underestimated," he declared.

The Liberal party dominated Canadian politics between 1993 and 2006, forming three back-to-back majority governments, followed by one minority government as the party became embroiled in scandals and infighting. Mr Dion was the unexpected winner of a 2006 leadership contest.

In this election Mr Dion is mainly touting his environmental credentials, considered a weak area for the governing Conservatives.

Attack ads

Since 2006, Prime Minister Harper has set aside Canada's commitments to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gasses, devising instead, a home-grown plan, which incurred the wrath of most leading environmental groups here and led to withering criticism abroad.

Mr Dion's Liberal "Green Shift" plan proposes to tax polluters, whilst reducing income tax.

But Mr Dion has been dogged by criticism of his leadership style and communication skills, criticism highlighted in a series of Conservative commercials. On Sunday he struck back.

"Stephen Harper has spent millions of dollars in attack ads and he will spend more to distort reality and attack my character," Mr Dion said.

"Well, it's a complete fabrication. That's not me."

Rob Russo is the parliamentary bureau chief for Canadian Press. He says that ever since Mr Dion became the surprise winner of the Liberal leadership contest in 2006, his popularity has slowly waned. Although he may have found his footing with his green plan.

Green shift

Mr Russo says it is a complex issue for Canadians demanding major changes to the country's tax system.

"Nobody, Dion, nor his colleagues can explain in 10 words or less what this 'Green Shift' means to them," says Mr Russo.

"They're counting on the overwhelming majority of Canadians, who don't believe they're polluters; who believe they're virtuous when it comes to the environment, coming to the ballot box in large numbers. They haven't managed to sell it to Canadians and they have to."

In fact, polls reveal there is no single issue yet dominating the campaign but as well as the economy and the environment, Canadians are concerned about the future of their publicly-funded health care system and their country's military commitment in Afghanistan, where 2,500 troops are stationed in Kandahar, in the volatile south, until 2011.

Canada has lost 97 soldiers since the beginning of the mission in 2003 and some analysts believe it could quickly become an election issue if the number of dead military personnel rises to 100 during the campaign.



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