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Q&A: Canada's general election

Canadian voters re-elected the Conservative Party on 14 October to another minority government in the country's third general election in just over four years. Here is a look at the main campaign issues, the key battlegrounds and what triggered the vote.

Why another election?

The ruling right-of-centre Conservative Party, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was elected in January 2006 with a minority government.

The party leaders, from left to right: Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe, Elizabeth May and Stephane Dion before the French-language debate - 1/10/2008
The economy emerged as the major campaign issue

Although Mr Harper passed a law after he took office for elections to be held every four years, he called a snap election in September, saying parliament was deadlocked and "dysfunctional".

The Conservatives took over from the centre-left Liberal Party, which had been in office since 1993, first under Jean Chretien for 10 years and then Paul Martin.

Who are the key players?

The main opposition Liberal Party - under Stephane Dion - had tried to block the Conservatives from gaining a majority in parliament.

The Liberals consistently trailed the Conservatives in opinion polls and had little chance of forming a government themselves unless, in a rare event in Canadian politics, they formed a coalition with one or more other parties.

Jack Layton steered the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) to greater representation in parliament - picking up seven more seats for a total of 37.

The Bloc Quebecois represents the aspirations of Quebec separatists in Ottawa. Leader Gilles Duceppe increased its number of seats to 50 of the Quebec's 75. The Bloc held 48 in the outgoing parliament.

What are the main issues?

With global financial markets in turmoil, the economy emerged as the biggest campaign issue.

The Conservatives were enjoying a widening lead in opinion polls until, in one of the two leaders' debates, Mr Harper said that Canadians were not concerned about their jobs or houses.

Mr Harper repeatedly said that Canada is well-prepared to weather the economic storm and has said the country should "stay the course [with] lower taxes, lower debt and prudent spending".

Mr Dion and Mr Layton attacked Mr Harper for waiting until one week before polling day to announce a plan to bolster central Canada's flagging aerospace and automotive sectors with a C$400m ($340m) loan fund.

Other measures worth C$8.6bn ($7.3bn) include a variety of tax cuts, tax benefits for senior citizens and single parents, a venture capital fund and the abolition of tariffs on machinery imports.

The Liberals' Stephane Dion said he would stick to his "Green Shift" plan of taxing greenhouse gas emissions in order to fund tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and small businesses. He also promised to increase spending on infrastructure and research and development.

He dismissed criticism of the plan, saying it would stimulate the economy and not harm it.

The NDP promised to roll back corporate tax cuts, lower taxes for small businesses and train workers for "green-collar" jobs. Mr Layton said they would reverse Conservative cuts to arts funding and launch a national child care plan and a home care plan for senior citizens.

The Green Party proposed a $C50 per tonne carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions that would be used to cut income tax. The Greens want to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

Canada's military presence in Afghanistan also entered the campaign just days before the vote when a parliamentary report was issued saying the cost of the mission may total C$18bn ($15.5bn) by the time its mandate ends in 2011.

The Conservatives promised to withdraw most of Canada's 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by 2011. Mr Dion said that voting Liberal is the only way to ensure that the deadline is met.

The NDP called for the troops to be withdrawn and for the UN and Nato to seek a ceasefire.

The mission in Afghanistan has never been popular in Quebec. The Bloc wants Canada's contingent pulled out of volatile Kandahar province and the mission redefined to give it a humanitarian focus.

The Greens want to begin withdrawing Canada's troops from Afghanistan by no later than February 2009.

The opposition parties were unanimous in attacking the Conservatives over cuts to arts spending announced in August - just before the election was called.

Mr Harper came under fire for saying that "ordinary Canadians" did not care about cultural issues and that artists were a spoiled elite.

He has since reversed a controversial move to cancel tax credits for films the government decides are "unsuitable".

The opposition parties all pledged a mix of increased spending or increased tax breaks for the arts sector.

What are the main battlegrounds?

The key to a majority in any Canadian election is to win big in the populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which between them account for 181 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

As the election was called, the Conservatives were gaining popularity in Quebec, where they held 11 seats when parliament was dissolved.

This put Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in the odd position of being favoured by Anglophone Canadians opposed to the re-election of the Conservatives.

The Tories were also popular in Ontario as the campaign began and nationwide polls suggested the Conservatives were within striking distance of a majority government.

That momentum was lost in the final two weeks of the campaign as Mr Harper seemed to be caught flat-footed by the extent of the global financial crisis.

But polling day revealed that although the Conservatives could not secure a majority, they increased their standing in the House of Commons by about 16 seats.


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