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Canada’s next PM: moderate or conservative?

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, a 46-year-old economist, will soon Canada's 22nd prime minister. But just how conservative he truly is remains to be seen.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Conservative leader Stephen Harper narrowly lost his chance at becoming prime minister in the 2004 elections after opponents painted him as a scary right-winger who would reshape the landscape like a U.S.-style evangelical Republican.

This time around the scare tactics didn’t work.

Despite the fears that Liberals conjured up, Harper won a narrow victory over Prime Minister Paul Martin in Monday’s general elections.

The 46-year-old economist, who often makes fun of his lackluster personality, will become the 22nd prime minister when he’s sworn in, likely in the next week or so.

Harper ran a measured, issued-based campaign. His handlers muzzled the Tory lawmakers who frightened mainstream Canadians in the 2004 vote with cockeyed comments on abortion and gays.

“I’m basically a cautious person. I don’t measure progress by emotion or sales pitch, and you know those are not my strengths,” Harper said during one campaign rally, making light of his reputation as a dour, rigid ideologue. “I believe it’s better to light one candle than to promise a million lightbulbs.”

Political background
Born in 1959, Harper grew up in the tony suburbs of Toronto. He once joked that he became an economist because he didn’t have the sparkling personality of an accountant, like his father and two brothers, according to one biography.

After high school, he worked as a computer analyst in the conservative oil-rich western province of Alberta, then got his masters in economics at the University of Calgary. He often portrays himself as a defender of free-market capitalism and more autonomy and federal money for the country’s 13 provinces and territories.

Harper married Albertan graphic designer Laureen Teskey in 1991; they have two young children, Benjamin and Rachel. He concedes his wife is more worldly than he, as she has traveled extensively.

“I get a much more accurate read on the realities of life in other parts of the world from Laureen,” Harper, who declined most interviews with the foreign media, said during a nationally televised town hall meeting earlier this week.

Once a member of his high school’s Young Liberals Club, Harper’s political allegiance changed as he matured. He became a founding member of the Reform Party, serving in parliament from 1993 to 1997, before leaving to head the National Citizens Coalition, a think tank that champions free enterprise and taxpayers’ rights.

In 2002, Stephen Harper returned to Parliament as official Leader of the Opposition and began trying to unify the country’s divided conservative movement. In 2003, he successfully steered several conservative alliances to form the Conservative Party of Canada and was elected Conservative leader in March 2004.

Neoconservative or moderate?
Just how conservative he truly is remains to be seen.

Political pundits had believed that had he won at least half of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, he would return to his neoconservative roots. But now faced with cobbling together a minority government, most expect him to maintain the moderate image more palatable to voters in the traditionally liberal province of Ontario and Quebec.

Some of his most bitter attacks have centered on Liberal Party entitlements and that Martin’s father was Cabinet minister under four Liberal prime ministers.

“I was not born into a family with a seat at the Cabinet table,” Harper once said. “I grew up playing on the streets of Toronto, not playing in the corridors of power.”

Harper, who belongs to the evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance, is opposed to abortion. But he denies Martin’s campaign claims that he would move to overturn abortion rights and has avoided questions about whether he’d attempt to overturn gay marriage.

Martin maintained that Harper’s political agenda is neoconservative, saying earlier this week: “Never have we seen a major political party with such a conservative agenda as this one, an agenda really drawn from the extreme right in the United States.”