By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
TORONTO, Oct. 15 -- Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was returned to power in national elections Tuesday, strengthening his Conservative Party's position in Parliament but still falling just short of an absolute majority.
The result seemed to guarantee another period of political instability for Canada, and it made a new election likely before the incoming government's four-year term is up.
Harper has led a minority government since 2006, relying on votes from opposition parties to pass legislation. Declaring Parliament deadlocked and dysfunctional, he called this snap election a year ahead of schedule, hoping for a majority. Harper was also concerned that waiting until after the U.S. elections might prompt Canadians to put a more compatible Liberal Party government into power if Americans produced a Democratic Party landslide.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Harper was on track to win 17 extra seats in Parliament, according to the country's election agency. Most of those seats came from an unexpectedly strong showing in Ontario, including Toronto.
Elections Canada reported Wednesday morning that the Conservatives appeared headed to Parliament with at least 144 seats, up from 127 when the last Parliament was dissolved in September. A party needs 155 seats for a majority.
"Canadians have voted to move our country forward, and they have done so with confidence in the future," Harper said early Wednesday in his home town of Calgary, Alberta. "Our party is bigger, our support base is broader, and more and more Canadians are finding a home in the Conservative Party of Canada."
The big loser was Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, whose party dropped 18 seats, its worst showing in years. He conceded defeat Tuesday night.
"I have talked to Prime Minister Harper to offer him congratulations and my full cooperation in these difficult economic times," Dion said at a rally in Montreal.
He said he would not resign his leadership post, telling supporters, "Canadians are asking me to be the leader of the opposition, and I accept that responsibility as an honor." Nevertheless, he is expected to face a challenge from within the party.
"I think Dion will resign," said University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman. "It's Conservative gains, Liberal losses, and the Liberals look very weak."
The Liberal Party, long Canada's top party, were down to 77 seats, according to the election agency. Bloc Quebecois will have 48 seats; the New Democratic Party, 37; and independent candidates, 2.
With the global freezing-up of credit markets last month and the collapse of stock prices, the economy emerged as the most important issue in the election. Harper campaigned as having kept the worst of the crisis out of Canada. He was also helped by splits on the left between three rival parties.
In some ways, the campaign here was overshadowed by the electioneering underway in the United States. One of the debates here took place on the same night as the American vice presidential debate, which is believed to have attracted more Canadian viewers and interest.
"A lot of our citizens pay more attention to what's happening in your election than to ours," Wiseman said.
Members of the Liberal Party, he said, had been hoping to go to the polls after the American election, bolstered by an expected strong showing for the Democratic Party. "They thought they would get that afterglow," Wiseman said.
Americans, accustomed to presidential campaigns lasting two years, would scarcely recognize the lightning-fast 37-day Canadian campaign.
After the election was called, the world financial crisis broke out, catching up Canada even though its banks are considered generally healthy, home prices have dipped only slightly and there is no serious subprime mortgage problem.
Last Friday, the Canadian dollar fell 2.8 percent against the U.S. dollar, and stocks here followed the worldwide collapse. Canada is also facing heavy job cuts in the automobile industry, with Chrysler Canada, Ford and General Motors of Canada all planning to curtail production.
Harper depicted himself as the candidate best-equipped to steer Canada out of the global economic crisis, calling Dion a risky choice. "If you want a prime minister who will protect the economy, then I ask you for a mandate," Harper said at one closing rally.
But Harper, 49, was forced to answer critics on the left that he is too conservative for most Canadians and that he wants to impose a right-wing social agenda on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
His opponents tried to tie Harper to President Bush, who is hugely unpopular here. "Just because someone's a Conservative doesn't mean he's George Bush," Harper was quoted as saying Saturday on a campaign trip to Quebec.
Dion, for his part, struggled to connect with voters. A native French speaker, he speaks heavily accented English that is sometimes difficult to understand. The 53-year-old Dion was criticized as remote and professorial, befitting his background as a sociologist and political scientist.
Dion was also hurt by his campaign pledge to impose a carbon tax to fight global warming, analysts said. Harper said that an economic downturn was no time to impose a new tax on Canadians.
The Liberals have governed Canada for most of its history, thanks in part to a fractious right. But Harper was able to unite two parties on the conservative side of the spectrum, and now it is the left that is fragmented, between the Liberals, the New Democrats and the environmentalist Green Party.
Appealing for support for the Liberals from backers of other left-of-center parties, Dion noted recently: "If we pool our votes together, we will win this election."
Those parties together would have enough seats to form a government, it appeared. But that was widely considered unlikely -- historically, the party winning the most seats in Parliament forms the government.
Foreign policy has largely receded as an issue here, despite the release of an independent parliamentary report showing the total costs of keeping Canadian troops in Afghanistan set to reach 18 billion Canadian dollars (about $15.5 billion) by 2011 -- far more than initial government estimates. Canadian troops around Kandahar have been engaged in some of the most intense fighting of the war. Nearly 100 Canadians have been killed.
Canadian involvement in the war has only lukewarm support here. Harper, however, appeared to have defused the war as an election issue with a surprise pledge to withdraw all 2,500 troops by 2011. Dion had also said his party would withdraw them by 2011, so Harper's announcement seemed to undercut the Liberals' position.