TORONTO -- Canadians went to the polls yesterday and drastically redrew their country's political map, throwing out Prime Minister Kim Campbell and electing a majority Liberal Party government led by Jean Chretien, a 59-year-old French-speaking lawyer from Quebec.
Voters delivered an astonishing rebuke to the Progressive Conservative Party, which has governed since 1984, first under Brian Mulroney and for the past four months under Ms. Campbell. Throughout their tenure the Conservatives have stood for hard-right economic policies, passing cuts in social spending, a new value-added tax and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Conservatives finished a humiliating fifth out of five major parties, holding onto just two of 296 seats in the House of Commons, as the final votes were still being counted. That was not even enough to maintain their official status as a party under Canadian parliamentary rules, which require parties to have 12 seats. No party in Canadian history has lost as many seats in a single election.
With the vote still being counted late yesterday evening, Ms. Campbell conceded defeat in her own Vancouver district.
"I accept the judgment of the Canadian people," she said with a rueful smile, calling for a time of "renewal and rebuilding."
As they were grinding the Conservatives under their heels, many Canadian voters were flirting with two formerly small, strongly ideological, regionally rooted parties. The Bloc Quebecois and the Reform Party did well in Quebec and Alberta, respectively, both provinces that were previously Conservative strongholds.
With the votes still being counted, the Bloc Quebecois had won at least 54 seats, all of them in Quebec, and appeared to be moving toward a second-place showing nationwide -- enough to form the official opposition in the House of Commons.
As "Her Majesty's loyal opposition," the Bloc would have the right to an official residence in Ottawa, a research staff, special financing and other perks. And it would have the privilege of opening each day's debate on the floor of the House of Commons.
That means the Bloc leader, Lucien Bouchard, would be able to infect each day's parliamentary question-and-answer period with the question of special powers for Quebec -- a subject that sets many English Canadians' teeth on edge.
Never before have Quebec separatists achieved such power at the federal level in Canada, and analysts are at a loss to predict how they will behave.
Mr. Bouchard, a popular and charismatic lawyer from the Lac St.-Jean region, a separatist bastion, said in his victory speech that he knew many Quebeckers had voted for his Bloc Quebecois as a way of punishing traditional politicians, not because they desired Quebec's independence. He promised such voters that his immediate goal is to defend the interests of Quebec in Ottawa -- and not necessarily to secede from Canada.
"It is high time that the voice of Quebec is heard [in Ottawa], in order to correct the inequities of this political order," he said.
Meanwhile, with the votes from Western Canada still being counted, the Reform Party had won 35 seats outright, for a strong third-place finish, and was leading in as many as 18 other races -- enough to give the Bloc Quebecois a run for its money.
The Reform Party, led by Preston Manning, the plain-spoken son of a former Alberta radio-preacher-turned-politician and popular provincial premier, campaigned on a platform of deep federal budget cuts, a reduction in the number of immigrants admitted into Canada, and a Canada-take-it-or-leave-it approach to Quebec sovereigntists.