Tue, Jan 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Conservatives set to finish Liberal control of Canada

POLL SURPRISE Public polling says Stephen Harper will be the new Canadian prime minister following a campaign largely free of ideology


Unless every national poll here is amiss, Stephen Harper, 46, an economist and social conservative who is writing a history of ice hockey, appears poised to lead his Conservative Party to victory over Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party, something that seemed highly improbable just a few weeks ago.

But whether a Harper victory would represent a seismic shift in a country that has long promoted itself as a beacon of social democracy and frequent critic of US foreign policy remains an open question. If he cannot muster a majority in the House of Commons, Harper may lead a weak, unstable government opposed by three left-of-center parties represented in parliament.

Harper -- in a campaign largely free of ideology -- promised to cut the national sales tax, grant families child care for preschoolers and introduce mandatory prison sentences. A longtime member of the House of Commons, representing Alberta, he has a conservative record, but steered clear in recent months of promising major changes to the national health insurance program.

The absence of strong ideological overtones would appear to make a Thatcherite-style revolution unlikely, even if there is a strong Conservative showing. Harper even noted that judges appointed by Liberal governments and an appointed Senate filled with Liberals would serve as checks on his power.

A change in Ottawa would almost certainly bring, at the least, a warming of relations with Washington, which have been strained since the US-led invasion of Iraq and have worsened over a series of recent trade disputes and Canadian moves to soften domestic drug laws.

Harper, while careful not to appear overly supportive of US President George W. Bush, has suggested he would reconsider Canada's refusal to join the US missile defense program. He has also promised to increase military spending and make a bigger contribution to NATO and peacekeeping operations in places like Haiti and Afghanistan. But he also said recently that he had no intention of sending troops to Iraq.

In recent weeks, the Liberals tried to recover votes with advertisements linking Harper to Bush, who is unpopular in Canada, and suggestions in speeches that Harper would attempt to reverse the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

"A Harper victory will put a smile on George W. Bush's face," one Martin commercial said.

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