Prime Minister’s biggest election threat is himself

TORONTO, Los Angeles Times

With a strong economy and weak opposition, Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s main opponent in Canada’s federal election on Monday is he himself. But it’s a race he still might lose. Chretien, a brusque 66-year-old Liberal, hopes to head his third majority government since he became prime minister in 1993. But his lead has narrowed harrowingly since the beginning of the campaign five weeks ago, from a comfortable 32 percentage points to only 16. His party is only seven seats away from losing the majority of the parliament’s 301 seats. If they can’t keep control of the body, it is likely that he will have to step down. Canada’s voters are split nearly down the middle, with nearly half behind Chretien’s Liberals and the rest divided among four other main parties. But with few real issues or serious challengers, the election has turned into a referendum on Chretien. After 30 years in Parliament and seven as prime minister, his political shrewdness has soured into arrogance, his critics say. “Mr. Chretien has to go,” the influential Globe and Mail newspaper said in a stinging editorial that nevertheless urged Canadians to vote Liberal in hopes that the party would force Chretien out.

But Chretien is determined to squeeze out a few last years in office. He called this election just 31/2 years into his five-year mandate to take advantage of the Liberal Party’s high approval ratings and to pre-empt his most popular rival within it, Finance Minister Paul Martin. The early move also caught short his most pressing challenger outside it, a charismatic newcomer named Stockwell Day. Day, a telegenic, evangelical 50-year-old conservative from Canada’s West, leads the Canadian Alliance, a party meant to offer an alternative to the Liberals’ one-size-fits-all federal government. His promises of low taxes, tougher law-and-order, more power for the provinces — and most important, a fresh face to run the country — has nearly wiped out the Liberals in Canada’s four western provinces. But as some of his other positions have become known — pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-immigrant and a potential proponent of a private, American-style health-care system — the average Canadian has backed away from him as too extreme. Over the course of the 36-day campaign, Day’s platform has splintered, and he has had to defend himself from those who call him a Holocaust denier, a racist, and an extremist. After he said he would revoke Native Canadians’ tax exemptions, aboriginal protesters occupied his campaign office and twice ran him off the stage at rallies.