For a country most Americans dismiss as dull, Canada spends alot of time teetering on the brink. It's there again, and if predictions for tomorrow's parliamentary election prove out, things may only get worse.
For quite awhile, Canadians told pollsters their favorite politician was "None of the Above." Now they seem about to prove it, with the leaders of the main parties attracting so little support that new and fringe parties stand to make major gains and totally revise the country's political reality.
Indeed, in addition to having difficulty winning the national election, the leaders of the two main parties may even have trouble holding onto their own seats in Parliament.
The two are Prime Minister Kim Campbell, leader of the governing Progressive Conservative Party, and Liberal party leader Jean Chretien.
Ms. Campbell, 46, took office only this summer. An election had to be called by next month and Ms. Campbell chose Oct. 25, the last day to hold one without needing a new, costly voter census. She started strongly, but the trend since has been almost all downhill. Last week she acknowledged that the Conservatives were in second place. She sought to be feisty and view this as only a rebound away from victory, but it is more likely to be just a pause before a further drop in the political standings.
Mr. Chretien, 59, has been around Canadian politics since the 1960s. His opponents use this political longevity against him, saying he represents the past and has few new ideas. Adding to his problems is that he brings a new dimension to bilingualism in this bilingual country, being judged equally halting in both English and French.
As a result of a birth defect, Mr. Chretien also appears to have a permanent sneer. When Conservative ads recently zeroed in on pictures of his mouth, even Tories cried "too nasty for Canada" and the ads were withdrawn.
The candidate used the opportunity to gain witty points: "They try to make fun of the way I look. It's true that I speak on one side of my mouth. . . . I'm not a Tory. . . . I don't speak on both sides of my mouth."
Ms. Campbell also has referred to Mr. Chretien as "the artful dodger," but her own credentials suffered when she was asked during the campaign about her plans for reforming social programs.
"This is not the time, I don't think, to get involved in very, very serious discussions," she responded. "You can't have a debate on such a key issue as the modernization of social programs in 47 days."
With the two major parties falling, this would seem a natural opportunity for a third party to move in. Canada already has an established third party, the New Democrats. But the New Democratic Party is falling as fast as the other two -- if not faster. In fact, it may fall right through the floor of representation when the votes are counted and fail to gain a single seat in Parliament.
Since people, in the end, have to vote for someone, two new parties are rising to fill the vacuum. They are polar opposites.
In Quebec, the dissatisfaction is the continuing feeling that the province has been rejected by the other parties in its quest for a special role in Canadian life. Therefore it seems determined to reject the national parties and vote overwhelmingly for the new Bloc Quebecois, a federal manifestation of the provincial nationalist strain. The Bloc is such a Quebec-first party that it isn't even trying to offer candidates elsewhere in the country.
Since the earlier attempts to gain special status for Quebec, including independence, have failed, the Bloc is an attempt at political terrorism, turning the system against itself by unleashing guerrilla warfare within the halls and rules of Parliament.
One candidate from another party has said that if he is elected he will try to have the Bloc barred from takings its seats, accusing the members of being treasonous.
The Bloc's polar counterpart is the Reform Party, which was rescued from sinking fortunes by the turn against the major parties. It offers a rightist economic policy and a firm "no" to Quebec's aspirations for a superior role in Canadian politics. It is offering candidates everywhere but in Quebec.
If both parties win substantial tallies -- the guessing is that they could finish second and third -- the chances for a built-in conflict in an expected minority government abound.
The Liberals are expected to win the largest number of the 295 seats (after all, somebody has to win the largest number), but not a majority. They most likely will need a coalition partner to form a government. The first choice would be the New Democrats, but the New Democrats are demanding what may be unacceptable concessions on the issue of North American free trade. And the New Democrats may not receive enough of a vote to make it into Parliament, unless they get a last-minute shot in the arm.
That leaves an alliance with either the Bloc Quebecois or Reform. Choosing one would automatically alienate the other and fracture the country into segments, one of which would feel totally left out of government. This is not a formula for success or longevity.
Two debates were held in the campaign, back to back in French and then English, at the beginning of October. Analysts said there were no clear winners in either. This could be bad news for Lucien Bouchard and his Bloc Quebecois, which would have seemed a favorite to win the French-speaking version.
But so far there are no signs that support for the new parties will, following the United States example, dry up as election day comes.
The last election, in 1988, was a one-issue affair, on whether to sign a free trade pact with the United States. The Tories and Yes won. The pact was signed a month later, and there was no great public support for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after that.
His popularity plunged to the single digits at times, and after holding on for several years, he returned to private life a few months ago.
This election abounds with ironies:
The Conservative Ironies: Prime Minister Campbell is the most popular of the prime ministerial candidates and much more popular than the man she replaced, but seems destined to lead her party to a drubbing, where Mr. Mulroney led it to landslides.
Her showing should not be a total surprise to the Conservatives. Before delegates elected her party leader, and therefore prime minister, polls showed that while she could win the party contest, she was less likely to win public support in the general election than her chief party leadership opponent, Jean Charest.
The Bloc Quebecois: The militant French-speakers' reason for being is the charge that Quebec doesn't get any respect. But, except for three brief periods, Canada has had a Quebecer as prime minister for 25 years, since Lyndon Johnson was president this side of the border. And if Mr. Chretien's party comes out on top tomorrow, the string will continue.
The Bloc claims to speak for Quebec, and if elected it certainly will, but some 40 percent of the provincial population is not French-speaking, being either the English-speaking minority or non-French-speaking immigrants. Their representation and chances for a corresponding political voice are minimal.
The Liberals: Even though Mr. Chretien is from Quebec, the party expects disaster in the province. If it does gain control of the federal government, it will have no outlets through which to award largess, unless it goes outside the regular channels.
Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun.