The already tangled Canadian political cord has gained a new knot.
It all started in Ontario last September when the New Democratic Party (NDP) surprised the Liberals in an election and took over governing Canada's largest, wealthiest province.
The two main parties in Canada are the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, with the NDP Number 3. (There also are Numbers 4, 5 and 6.) The NDP -- mildly socialist, in a way similar to the social democratic parties of Western Europe -- did lead in the polls for a while before 1988's federal elections, but ended up Number 3 again when the real votes were in.
Ontario and Premier Bob Rae was its first major victory in a long time. And its only one, until this month.
Inside of four days it won decisive victories in British Columbia (on the Pacific Coast) and Saskatchewan (two provinces over, ++ above Montana). When the dust settled it was in command of provinces containing half of the people in Canada. (The NDP controls the Northwest Territories too, but that is just a territory and not a full-blown province.)
So what do these NDP victories mean? Is the United States now faced with a socialist (read that communist) menace on our border just as communism most everywhere else is collapsing? Hardly.
To Canadians, the NDP surge could mean great dissatisfaction with the two major parties. Dissatisfaction is particularly strong toward the Conservatives (the ruling party at the federal level) and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. On a good day his approval rating tops 15 per cent. There haven't been many good days lately. One recent poll had him ready to break into single digits.
The Liberals have a new leader, Jean Chretien, picked last year, who has gotten off to a less-than-spectacular start. The NDP also picked a new leader, Audrey McLaughlin, but she also has not set the prairies on fire.
In fact, the most popular political figure in Canada these days is former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, now 72 and out of politics for almost a decade. He generally has kept a low profile, except occasionally to rail against attempts to give Quebec a special status and turn over powers to the provinces.
NDP victory in the provinces will not automatically translate into victory in the next federal elections, expected sometime next year -- whenever Mr. Mulroney can get his approval rating up enough to let him think he has a chance of winning (possible considering the volatile electorate and the volatile political conditions tormenting Canada) or if the Tories oust him from leadership (less probable) or if he becomes U.N. secretary-general (another long shot).
As in the United States, national and regional elections are fought on different issues. In British Columbia, the long-ruling Social Credit Party fell victim to a series of scandals. In Saskatchewan, the farm economy is badly hurting, and even a splurge of last-minute financial poll-priming failed to save the day for the ruling Conservatives.
Also, the connection between the national parties and the provincial parties bearing the same names is a lot looser than it is in the United States. In fact, the national parties have cut relations with some of their provincial namesakes, so there is no connection at all. Except maybe in some confused voters' minds.
There was another provincial election last month, one that the NDP didn't win, in New Brunswick. The Liberals kept control, but won only 46 of the 58 seats. The last time they won all 58 seats, a feat possibly unequaled in any other real, functioning democratic entity.
Finishing second (8 seats) was not one of the major parties but the tiny Confederation of Regions (CoR), which campaigned on a platform attacking Canada's attempts at and commitment to bilingualism.
What made this backlash against Quebec and French-speakers in general more telling is that New Brunswick is Quebec's eastern neighbor and the most bilingual province in Canada, about two-thirds English-speaking and one-third French-speaking.
Quebec and its demands for special status still dominate Canadian politics.
In the wake of last year's failed Meech Lake accord, Mr. Mulroney last month came up with a new attempt to define and shape the future, still promising something to Quebec, but something vaguer than Meech Lake offered, and adding cherries for other interests too, things like an elected senate, self-government down the road for the Native Americans, redistributed powers between the provinces and Ottawa.
Meech Lake required the approval of all 10 provinces, and one of the reasons it lost was that between the initial accord and the time for the final signing two provinces had held elections and the new governments were not enamored over what their predecessors had half agreed to.
The new proposals don't require unanimity; most of them just need the approval of seven provinces containing at least half the country's voters. Thanks to the recent elections there is no way to get that 50 percent without involving at least one of the new NDP premiers. While their views differ somewhat, the three new leaders are basically not subscribers to either the Conservative or Quebec visions of Canada.
Quebec says that Meech Lake was the minimum, and it is not prepared to scale back its demands. Quebec's political lineup pushes the rhetoric toward the separatist position, but the negative economic realities of such a move are beginning to be appreciated.
Added to this, Native Americans are speaking out more forcefully. Their newly elected leader, Ovide Mercredi, warned last week, "If the province of Quebec declares or negotiates separation from Canada, it cannot include at least two-thirds of the province over which our people claim title."
Newfoundland has put in a claim for parts of Labrador, which are now part of Quebec but weren't when France ruled the province way back when.
Last week, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells said that it was fine with him if Quebec has the status of a distinct society as
long as it didn't get any new powers that will affect the rest of the country. Seeming to write off the interests of minorities within Quebec in favor of the interest of trying to keep Quebec within Canada, he also said that what Quebeckers want to do to each other to preserve French culture and identity is fine as long as other provinces aren't affected.
In the agonizing showdown, the Meech Lake plan lost because of the opposition of a Native American legislator in Manitoba and of Mr. Wells. Next time round, the NDP will make its mark felt too.
Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.