With national elections scheduled in less than two weeks, a leading public opinion poll showed on Tuesday that Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party has fallen behind the rival Conservative Party.
The Liberals have foundered during four weeks of campaigning, analysts said, because of voter discontent over a continuing political financing scandal.
The Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, 45, had little hope of winning a national election just a few months ago but has pushed ahead with 32 percent compared to 31 percent for the Liberals, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll. The polling firm projected that the Conservatives could win 127 of 308 seats in Parliament, with the Liberals predicted to win 99 seats. While a majority in Parliament is needed for a party to approve legislation on its own, the Conservatives could be positioned to govern in a coalition with smaller parties.
"If Stephen Harper has enough seats, we will have a Conservative prime minister," said John Wright, senior vice president of Ipsos-Reid. "People look at Canadians as being dull and reserved, but they take their candidates seriously. One could argue with a four-party system it is far more volatile."
Maclean's, a major national magazine, ran a headline this week that boiled down the essence of the election: "Two months ago, the idea seemed far-fetched. No more. How do you like the sound of Prime Minister Stephen Harper?"
The Liberal Party campaign has been accused of using scare tactics, contending that the Conservatives would end an era of socially progressive programs in Canada. Martin has said Harper plans to introduce legislation against abortion and same-sex marriage and privatize Canada's national, free health care system.
Harper, who has portrayed his party as moderate, said Tuesday night in a national debate that he planned to cut taxes but would not cut social services. He also denied he would introduce "legislation eliminating a woman's right to choose."
Martin, who was battered from all sides during the debate, tried to differentiate himself from Harper. "On June 28th, Canadians will elect either myself or Mr. Harper to serve as prime minister. The choice matters because we have very different values and we offer very different prescriptions for the future."
Martin attacked Harper's plan to cut taxes, saying the way the numbers added up, health care would not be protected. Harper shot back: "Where is the sponsorship money if you know the numbers? How can you talk about numbers with your disappearing millions?"
Last month, Martin called the election for June 28, as support among voters for the Liberal Party, which has been in power since 1993, was falling. Martin, 65, took over from his Liberal rival, Jean Chretien, who resigned last December. Political analysts said Martin had hoped a strong campaign would lift voter support but that he may have underestimated voter anger. Members of the Liberal Party have been charged in what has been called the sponsorship scandal. The scandal involves a police investigation of the diversion of about $75 million in government funds to advertising firms with close ties to the Liberal Party in exchange for little or no work.
Voter discontent has been seen in the major provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, the polling organization said. In particular, Wright said the Liberal Party has faced a backlash in Ontario, where taxes recently have been raised. The Liberals need a strong showing in the province to win the national elections.
"When the Ontario budget came down, it was like a spark that blew the room apart," Wright said. "People are very angry about the sponsorship scandal. It's hard to reverse a trend."
Ironically, Wright said, Martin was not required to call elections so soon. "This election did not have to be called until the fall of 2005, but this prime minister decided to go," Wright said. "There will be a lot of soul searching that happens afterward."