Canada's elections lacking drama Chretien won't face significant opposition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AS CERTAIN as anything can be in politics, it is certain that the Canadian election: Won't be another 1993. Will be an overwhelming Liberal victory.

Will again result in a prime minister who is a native of the unconsolable province of Quebec.

His name will be Jean Chretien. The last election, in 1993, was an earthquake in Canada, a 7.6 on the political scale. Going into the year, everyone knew the public was fed up with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Once highly popular, his ratings in the polls sometimes dropped into single digits. So he left office early and turned the government and control of his Conservative Party over to Kim Campbell.

The British Columbian became the first woman to lead the country. but her few months in office before she called for the nationwide election were not inspiring enough to get the taste of Mulroney out of people's mouths and led to most observers' minimizing the Conservatives' chances to keep control of Parliament.

Under Canada's parliamentary system, voters elect individual members of Parliament and the leader of the party winning the most seats becomes prime minister. Voters couldn't express their dislike of the Tory leader and still vote for the Tory candidate. But the depth of the dislike of the Tory leadership surprised everybody, to put it mildly. In 1988, when Mulroney won his second term, the Tories captured 168 of Parliament's 295 seats. When the dust settled after the 1993 election, not only had they lost control of Parliament, but they also lost the runner-up perk, being named the official opposition.

The Tories finished fourth. They didn't even get the 12 seats needed to qualify as an officially recognized party. They had two seats. Only their nose survived above the waters of obliteration.

Chretien's Liberals won with a dominating 177 seats. Canada's traditional third party, the New Democrats, was wiped out almost as badly as the Conservatives. It too ended up without official status, with nine seats.

Claiming the remaining seats were two new parties. The Bloc Quebecois got the nod as official opposition with 54 seats, and Reform followed closely with 52.

But neither of these parties is expected to do well enough in this year's elections to challenge the Liberals, just as neither of the older parties is thought to have a chance of reviving itself in time.

The Bloc Quebecois is a one-province party, formed to let the other nine provinces know how displeased of Quebec separatists are with their lot in life. In 1993, it had a charismatic leader, Lucien Bouchard, who since has left Ottawa to head the more important provincial version of the movement, the Parti Quebecois.

Last month, the Bloc elected its second new leader in the 14 months since Bouchard left. But it isn't the fact that Gilles Duceppe is little known, even in Quebec, that will be the big handicap against the Bloc's scoring big in the election. It is that the Bloc has no appeal outside Quebec and that it has no real agenda in Ottawa, other than promoting Quebec independence.

This gives Canada the undesirable distinction of having its official opposition being not so much opposed to the ruling party as opposed to the country itself and the government of which it is a part. Some call it treason; others tell them to be quiet and not make an awkward situation worse.

All told, this is not a platform that has much chance of wide appeal, so the Bloc is doomed to a statistical maximum of 75 seats, not quite half of what it would need to lead the expanded 301-seat Parliament.

Similarly, No. 3 Reform is not a nationwide party. It is a right-wing movement from Alberta that is having only very limited success catching on east of the prairies. Its anti-Quebec stance guarantees it no victories there and it is almost as unpopular in the four Atlantic provinces. Leadership problems and member revolt add to its troubles and further limit its reasonable expectations.

All this leaves the Liberals as the only nationwide party functioning effectively in Canada and therefore a virtual shoo-in for re-election.

Even if the voters were sick of them, which they aren't, voters have no one to turn to this time. Depending on the results of this election, there may not be anyone next time.

Except for Kim Campbell's brief interregnum in 1993, and two other similar months-long interruptions, Quebecers have called the prime minister's chair home continually since Pierre Trudeau first took office in 1968, almost 30 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson was president south of the border.

Not only does this statistic cast doubts on Quebec separatists' laments that they don't have a political voice, but it also casts a shadow over the future of the man considered, on displayed merit, to be the best choice to succeed Chretien, Paul Martin. His name may look typically English, but it happens to be French and he is from ... you guessed it.

Quebec separatism is on high simmer, but is not boiling over at the moment, and is not expected to be an issue in the campaign. In fact, there is little need for issues.

Chretien continues to be more popular than unpopular, though he has given voters some ground for displeasure.

For one thing, a main Liberal promise in 1993 was to get rid of Mulroney's hated 7 percent goods and services tax, which is added to everything. But in office, the party changed its mind and the tax. Also, Chretien took some heat after saying that he keeps in touch with the common people and even talks to the homeless, having to concede later that he hadn't done this in years.

Chretien has maintained his political balance, and kept his opposition off balance, by seeming to borrow freely from their ideas, undercutting their programs and their potential support.

He and President Clinton are not the bosom buddies Mulroney and Ronald Reagan were - they sang Irish ballads together - but they have met several times, usually at international forums. Chretien did not need his trip to Washington earlier this month - his first, surprisingly, since taking office - to stock up on campaign pictures before the election.

Canada must have an election every five years, if not sooner. And the betting is that Chretien is doing so well that it will be sooner. June is mentioned, most probably June 2, with an October date a secondary possibility.

Compared with U.S. campaigns, almost anybody else's would be considered short and sweet, but Canada's definitely will be. Under a new law, the campaign need only be 36 days long, meaning that if Chretien is shooting for June 2, he can say so next weekend.

Also, to balance the large expanse of the country with the electronic communications age, voting hours across the country will be staggered this year.

Although the main result of the election already seems assured, it will answer other important questions:

Who's No. 2?

Can Reform expand its base, or has it maxed out?

Can the Quebec separatists maintain their high provincial numbers, or will the lack of Quebec as a major issue, and the downside of being responsible for running the province during difficult financial times, crimp their style?

Will the Conservatives and/or the New Democrats be able to make a significant comeback or will Canada be looking for a new national party?

Myron Beckenstein works for The Sun's foreign desk.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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