Canadians don't enjoy going to the polls during their frigid winters, but they will select a new parliament on January 23 because the outgoing House of Commons delivered a "no-confidence" vote in December to Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party government.
Martin's government came under strong criticism when revelations of corruption by certain cabinet members appeared in the media. After months of political jockeying, his minority government was ousted by the combined votes of three other parties: the Conservatives, New Democrats (NDP), and Bloc Quebecois (BQ), whose support is in Quebec.
The Liberal Party, which resembles the liberal wing of the Democratic Party here, gets much of its support in Ontario, Canada's largest and most industrialized province. Since the mid-1960s, it has dominated national politics, except for the years between 1985 and 1993 when Conservatives held federal power.
Polls show that many Canadians think the Liberals have run out of steam after twelve years in office and that change is desirable. However, the aspirations of four political parties make it problematic whether the Conservatives could form a government even if they win a plurality of seats.
One reason is that the NDP, with its leftist social democratic agenda, would not join the Conservatives in a coalition government. It might even provide votes for the Liberals in close districts (ridings) if the Conservatives are likely to win a majority.
Another factor is the BQ, whose sole agenda is to promote Quebec's economic and cultural interests. It espouses eventual separation from Canada and in the meantime works to ensure that the French-speaking province has a high degree of political autonomy and receives large grants of federal funds. Like the NDP, this party is closer to the Liberals than to Conservatives in economic and social philosophy.
The Economist recently carried a special section on Canada titled "Peace, Order, and Rocky Government," with the caption "Canada's dysfunctional politics." It pointed to a reality of Canadian politics not fully appreciated south of the border: the country is increasingly polarized among three geographic sections: Ontario, Quebec, and the West.
Resource-rich western provinces, especially Alberta with its vast oil and gas reserves, have long felt neglected by the federal government, which is dominated by the political clout of Ontario. Quebec, for its part, has moved inexorably since the 1960s toward political and cultural autonomy and in a 1995 referendum came within a percentage point of choosing to become an independent country.
Even though both Liberal and Conservative governments have appeased Quebec nationalism over many years, there is a possibility that if the separatist local Parti Quebcois returns to power in the province and holds a new referendum, a majority may opt for separation from Canada.
U.S.-Canadian relations have ebbed and flowed since World War II when the two countries joined forces to fight Germany and Japan. The two neighbors joined ten West European states in 1949 to conclude the North Atlantic Alliance, and in 1958 they formed the North American Aerospace Command to protect the continent against Soviet bombers and missiles. On the economic front, they concluded a free trade agreement in 1988, which abolished most trade barriers and increased prosperity in both countries.
On the political side, however, Canada's relations with Washington were strained after 1968 when Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals' leader, was the prime minister. They improved in 1985 when Brian Mulroney, a Conservative, assumed the helm and worked closely with the Reagan-Bush administrations. But coolness toward Washington resumed in 1993 after Jean Chretien, the Liberal leader, dominated Ottawa politics, and relations hit a low in 2003 when he flatly refused to provide any Canadian support for an American-British decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
Long-held Canadian public suspicions of Washington, prevalent especially in Ontario, was a factor that led to a Conservative defeat in 1993. As one pundit put it, "Canadians like Americans, but they don't always like their government."
Although the White House and State Department are careful not to comment on Canadian politics, their sympathies no doubt lie with the Conservatives, not least because Prime Minister Martin publicly attacked President Bush for his lack of support for an international agreement on climate change recently negotiated in Montreal. Martin also condemned White House policy on several trade disputes, leading critics to charge that he is using anti-American rhetoric as a campaign tactic.
The reality is that President Bush's policies, in both foreign affairs and trade disputes, are strongly resented by many Canadians. The January 23 elections will show whether antipathy for U.S. policies is outweighed by the Canadian public's desire for change in Ottawa, and whether the Conservatives will benefit from that sentiment.
File last modified on Sunday, 22-JAN-2006 07:03 PM EST