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Published: Thursday, 1/26/2006

A new look in Canada

CANADA'S Liberal Party, one of the most durable political machines in any democratic country, was ousted Monday as the minority ruling party after 13 years of rule and sometimes misrule, in part because of a kickback scandal centered in French-speaking Quebec, and partly because it seems to have lost its way in the mine-strewn Canadian political landscape.

The new prime minister of Canada will be Stephen Harper of Calgary, Alberta, a politician really not very widely traveled, or very well known to Canadian voters or residents of other countries, including Americans. However, the CBC commentators quoted from an e-mail by a Minneapolis resident Monday night: "Why a mini-Bush? Were the Liberals really that bad?"

Although the downfall of the Liberal minority government was widely forecast, Canadians decided after a 55-day political campaign to punish the party in power, but not harshly.

The Conservatives won only 124 seats out of 308. The Liberals held on to 103 seats, including a solid majority in Toronto and its Ontario suburbs. Canada, in addition to several geographical rifts, has a substantially different outlook between urban and rural dwellers.

The political center of gravity in Canada has shifted at least in part to the western part of the country, something that has happened before.

A fiery Conservative from Alberta, John Diefenbaker, won a huge parliamentary majority in 1958, but his victory was short-lived and ushered in a long era of Liberal rule.

The longevity of minority parliaments in Canada is not great, generally from about 18 months to two years. Mr. Harper has definitely improved his act since the last election in 2004, when the Conservatives fell short of a plurality in the Canadian Parliament.

But the new prime minister will have to make common cause with the New Democratic Party, which gained 10 seats, or the Bloc Quebecois, which lost three seats, if the Liberals carry through on their pledge to be a strong opposition party.

Canadians can be as politically fractious as Americans. They cheerfully vote for one party at the provincial level and another at the federal level, and they gripe about their political system.

The man caught in the middle was outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin. Often hailed as the genius behind Canada's enviable balanced budget, Mr. Martin took his defeat with grace and wisely took himself out of the Liberal Party leadership in his concession speech.

Canada now looks to leadership from a politician who is not in the mold of most of the country's leaders. Mr. Harper toys with the issues of guns, gays, and God, as does his counterpart in the United States.

He may try to move closer to Washington on some issues, but that would fly in the face of current Canadian sentiment, which is certainly not favorable to Mr. Bush. Yet the economic ties, despite some sore points between the two countries, are strong enough to give him some latitude on that score.

As for Mr. Harper's future, good luck to him, because although voters finally disciplined the Liberals in Canada, he is going to need all the good fortune he can get as he tries to rule in a minority government.



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