Canadian politicians will hit the campaign trail this holiday season after opposition parties seized upon a corruption scandal to bring down the minority government of Prime Minister Paul Martin in a vote of no confidence.
The loss means an election for all 308 seats in the lower House of Commons, which will take place on Jan. 23, Martin announced Tuesday. Martin and his Cabinet will continue to govern until then.
The Conservative Party teamed up with the New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties to bring down the government, claiming the ruling Liberal Party had lost its moral authority. Recent polls have given the Liberals a slight lead over the Conservatives, with the New Democrats in third place.
The same surveys suggest the Bloc Quebecois would sweep the French-speaking province of Quebec, making a majority government unlikely no matter which party wins the most seats.
“The vote in the House of Commons did not go our way,” Martin said. “But the decision of the future of our government will be made by Canadians. They will judge us.”
Tense relationship with U.S.
Martin has had frosty relations with the White House, standing by the Liberal Party decision not to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also declined to join in Washington’s continental ballistic missile shield, infuriating the Bush administration, has been called weak on terrorism, and was vocal in his opposition of high U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber.
His push to legalize gay marriage throughout Canada also raised the hackles of Republicans south of the 49th parallel, but Martin is widely respected worldwide for Canada’s neutrality and open arms toward immigrants and minorities.
Canada’s Conservatives, by contrast, are seen as much more receptive to improving relations with Washington, though a majority of Canadians opposed the war in Iraq and the policies of President Bush.
Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper favors tax cuts and opposed Martin’s successful bill to legalize same-sex marriage throughout Canada. He would become prime minister if the Conservatives receive the most seats in Parliament.
“This is not just the end of a tired, directionless, scandal-plagued government,” Harper said after Monday’s vote. “It’s the start of a bright new future for this country.”
The opposition is banking on the public’s disgust with a corruption scandal involving the misuse of funds targeted for a national unity program in Quebec.
An initial investigation absolved Martin of wrongdoing, but accused senior Liberal members of taking kickbacks and misspending tens of millions of dollars in public funds.
The government ran into peril this month when it lost the support of the New Democratic Party, whose backing earlier this year helped Martin escape a previous no-confidence motion by a single vote. New Democrat leader Jack Layton said he had not received enough assurances the Liberal Party would fight the increased use of private health care in Canada.
Martin appears prepared to take his chances with a holiday campaign and blamed his opponents for any inconvenience to the predominantly Christian electorate.
The prime minister had promised to call an election within 30 days of the release of a follow-up report on the corruption scandal. The document is expected Feb. 1, which would have meant elections in the first week of April, a time that suits Canadians better than the bitterly cold and busy holiday season.
Although no formal agreement is in place, all the parties are likely to agree to a pause in the campaign around the Christmas and New Year holidays. The campaign is expected to start Tuesday, after Parliament is dissolved.
Unemployment in Canada is at a 30-year low and Canada runs a budget surplus.
Andrew Stark, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, maintained that the campaign would not be decided until the final days. Stark, however, believes the Conservatives will win a minority government if Canadians view another Liberal and New Democrat coalition as being unaccountable with tax money.
The last time a Canadian political campaign coincided with the holiday season was in 1979, when Joe Clark’s minority Conservative government was toppled just weeks before Christmas. That vote was delayed until February, however, when Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals took back Parliament.
The latest collapse comes 17 months after an election that turned a Liberal majority into a fragile minority on June 28, 2004.