- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

OTTAWA — Canada took a tentative step to the right in yesterday’s federal election, ousting the Liberals after 12 years in power and voting in a fragile minority Conservative government, television networks said.

Preliminary official figures at 11 p.m. showed the Conservatives winning or ahead in 122 electoral districts compared to 103 for the Liberals of Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The result was a personal triumph for Conservative leader Stephen Harper, a 46-year-old economist who forced through the creation of the party in December 2003 by uniting two squabbling right-wing movements.

“It shows that Canadians were looking for change,” deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay told CTV.

Support for the Liberals shrank amid voter fatigue and a major kickback scandal that brought down Mr. Martin’s minority government in November.

How long Mr. Harper can stay in power is open to serious question, since he will have nowhere near the 155 seats he needs to hold a majority in the 308-seat House of Commons.

The Conservatives have no natural allies in Parliament and will have to govern on an issue-by-issue basis with the backing of other parties.

“Minority means we have to be constructive, and we have to be working together and finding common ground,” said Mr. MacKay.

Analysts think a minority Harper government would likely last between a year and 18 months.

Preliminary data showed the Conservatives had won 36.4 percent of the vote, up from 29.6 percent in the June 2004 election. The Liberals slipped to 31.3 percent, down from 36.7 percent.

Mr. Martin, 67, had tried hard to convince Canadians that Mr. Harper was an extremist who would try to strip away personal freedoms such as homosexual “marriage” and abortion.

But Mr. Harper shrugged off the attacks, vowing to clean up government, cut the national sales tax, clamp down on crime and cut waiting times for health care.

It was the first time a right-wing party had won an election since 1988, when the then Progressive Conservative government beat the Liberals.

One of the reasons for Mr. Harper’s success was a breakthrough in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where only a few weeks ago the Bloc Quebecois was predicting it would win the vast majority of the 75 seats available.

But the Conservatives, who had no representation at all in Quebec at the start of the campaign, were set to win 10 seats. The Bloc looked likely to lose three seats and end up with 50.

The result was a blow for Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, who had predicted his party would win more than 50 percent of the vote and give a boost to the independence movement. Initial figures showed the Bloc had won 43 percent of the vote.

The left-leaning New Democrats also did well and looked on course to win 30 seats — their best showing since 1988.

The preliminary results were in line with polls in the last three weeks of the campaign which consistently showed the Conservatives were set to win a shaky mandate.

Mr. Martin fought mainly on his record, particularly an economy running both a healthy budget and trade surpluses.

As the Liberals slipped in the polls, Mr. Martin stepped up his attacks on Mr. Harper, saying he would leave the weak behind, curb abortion and let Washington determine Canadian foreign policy.

At the dissolution of the old parliament in November, the Liberals had 133 seats and the Conservatives 98.

Mr. Harper is more of a fiscal conservative than a social conservative, pledging not to bring in any restrictions on abortion, for example. He would allow a free vote in Parliament on whether to end homosexual “marriage” but would legislate benefits for same-sex couples.

One of his greatest accomplishments has been to form the Conservative Party out of two right-of-center parties that had split the conservative vote and allowed successive Liberal victories. He says he has learned to build bridges especially within his new party.

He has a reputation as a policy wonk for being better with briefing books than working a crowd, but in this campaign he became more personable.

Relations with the Bush administration are expected to improve under a Harper government, after years of frosty ties with the Liberals.

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