Tuesday, June 29, 2004

TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, saddled with Canada’s first minority government in 25 years, has been humbled, but insists that he doesn’t need a coalition to stay in power.

“It’s unfamiliar terrain,” he said yesterday at a postelection press conference. “But we are up to the challenge, and we will embrace it. We will make it work.”

Mr. Martin’s Liberal Party saw its majority in the House of Commons reduced to a minority government in Monday’s election, but he said his party will not be forced to choose between the separatist Bloc Quebecois and the socialist New Democrat Party (NDP) — two vastly different opposition groups with contrasting political agendas.

“What we have got is a stable minority government,” said Mr. Martin, relieved at avoiding even heavier losses in Monday’s election at the hands of Quebec separatists and a newly unified Conservative Party. “Minority governments can work, and I do believe minority governments can have mandates, and I do believe we have a mandate to act on the program we set out.”

The Liberals won 135 seats Monday, down significantly from the 176 they got in the last election four years ago. The Conservatives won 99 seats, the Bloc Quebecois garnered 54 and the NDP won 19. One independent candidate also was elected.

The Canadian prime minister says he has talked to the leaders of both the Bloc Quebecois and NDP, but won’t forge any formal agreements with them.

For now, Mr. Martin thinks he can find common ground with the other parties on his main initiatives — improved access to health care, a national day care program and more money for cities.

Even if the Liberals formed an alliance with the New Democrats, they still would be one seat short of the 155 required for a majority. The result is disappointing to some Liberals, because it marks an end to three consecutive majority governments under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

For Canada’s newly united right, the outcome is equally frustrating. It is far lower than the Conservatives expected, especially after party leader Stephen Harper’s promises to lower taxes, increase military spending and make government more accountable seemed to resonate with voters itching for change.

In the waning days of the campaign, public-opinion polls showed that the Liberals were in a dead heat with the Conservatives — locked in a statistical tie at 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively. But the polls were wrong.

Voters, particularly those in Ontario, heeded Mr. Martin’s pitch that a right-wing government would Americanize Canada and did so just before they marked their ballots.

The pollsters are puzzled by a last-minute Liberal surge. Several predicted that the Conservatives would win a minority government.

“For the Liberals to come back so strongly in the last few days is astonishing,” said Donna Dasko of the Toronto-based polling firm Environics. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe warned yesterday that his party won’t rubber-stamp Mr. Martin’s plans.

“We will be working file by file, issue by issue,” he said.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, calls the Liberal minority a “modest mandate” and promised in his concession speech that the Conservatives will “remind the Liberals they have been sent a message.”

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