If the Oct. 25 federal election in Canada were run-of-the-mill, it would be about whether the unpopular Conservative Party can retain power under a bright young prime minister, or must hand over power to the Liberals. But that is only superficially what is at stake. The greater issues are Canada's two-and-a-half-party system, and its continued existence as a single nation.
Something called the Bloc Quebecois has sprung to life in Quebec and threatens to take more than half its federal seats, the ones that normally throw rule to the Liberals or Conservatives. It is the counterpart of the Parti Quebecois, the powerful opposition party in Quebec Province, which never contested for the federal parliament, and which hopes to come to power next year and lead the province to sovereignty in 1995.
In Alberta and nearby western provinces, the new Reform Party has captured imaginations and may take many seats. It is right wing, fiercely free market, a protest vehicle in the Perot mold, and strictly regional in appeal.
Both are doing better in the polls than the traditional nationwide third party, the New Democrats, who count as Canada's democratic leftists and now rule in three provinces including the biggest, Ontario. Their record in provincial power has brought them to historic lows in the polls, about 6 percent, barely enough to count as a federal party.
The ruling Conservatives were in dismal straits in June when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stepped down in favor of Kim Campbell, a lawyer from Vancouver with cabinet experience. Her personal magnetism has brought the party back to equal with the Liberals. The Liberals, in turn, are ready to reclaim power after nine years in the wilderness, but are stuck with the unpopular Jean Chretien, a longtime lieutenant of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as leader.
Conventionally, the main issue is the enduring recession and ideological differences on what to do about it. Mr. Chretien promises job creation. Ms. Campbell puts her undoubted popularity at risk by promising only to combat the deficit without new taxes, forecasting little job growth in this century.
But the more important questions are whether either major party will be able to form a government, whether Reform in the West and Bloc Quebecois in Quebec will get the whip hand, and whether a party dedicated to breaking up Canada will get to choose its prime minister for a price. Therein lies Canada's future.