Canada faces the strong possibility of rule by an unstable minority government as a tight and uncertain race between the ruling Liberal Party and the New Conservative Party enters its final days, according to political analysts here.
Prime Minister Paul Martin and Conservative leader Stephen Harper have sharpened their attacks in an already vitriolic campaign as they try to win voters in crucial regions before Monday's vote.
Martin campaigned in the battleground province of Ontario, where the Liberal Party is projected to lose seats, and tried to distinguish himself from Harper, warning Canadians that Harper would make drastic cuts in social programs and restrict human rights.
Martin condemned Harper for supporting the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. After then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that Canada would not join the war, Harper, as leader of the opposition, apologized to the United States. Martin said the Liberals "would not have a foreign policy that would go on bended knee to another country."
Martin, who appeared energized and relaxed in his campaign appearances, also contended that Conservatives would reduce the power of Canadian courts, which have been active in shaping social policy on such issues as same-sex marriage.
Harper, appearing confident with his party's surge among voters, also campaigned in Ontario. "If you keep up the good work," he said at a rally in Belleville on Thursday, "we will celebrate freedom from the taxing Liberals."
Campaigning Friday in Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba, he defended his party against a barrage of Liberal ads that caution Canadians against voting Conservative. "Every time you see on television one of those divisive, demonizing ads," he said at a rally, "remember, Paul Martin does this because Paul Martin is a desperate man."
Recent polls show the two parties roughly in a tie. A poll of 2,000 Canadians released Friday by Ipsos-Reid for the Globe and Mail newspaper showed the Liberals with a 1-point lead over the Conservatives. A poll of 800 Canadians by the polling firm COMPAS Inc. for the National Post newspaper also showed the Liberals with a 1-point lead. The Ipsos-Reid poll had a margin of error of 2.2 percent; the COMPAS poll's was 3.1 percent.
"Every poll is showing the same thing," said John Wright, vice president of Ipsos-Reid. "It is a dead heat. The only thing that is certain Monday night is there will be a minority government." That is, no party would win 155 of the 308 seats in Parliament, requiring the leading party to form a coalition with another party to pass any laws.
The power broker in the new minority government most likely will become the Bloc Quebecois party, which is projected to win more than 60 of Quebec's 75 seats and supports separation from Canada. "The Bloc will hold a significant block of seats," Wright said. "They will be kingmaker in all this.
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, has said it will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to support the Liberals in Parliament. "That means anything not in the interest of Quebec," he said. "That will mean Parliament will be plunged back into another election."
Pollsters say Canadians are angry with the Liberals about a scandal in which millions of dollars were allegedly funneled to favored advertising firms under a program to increase federal government visibility in Quebec as a means of countering separatist sentiment.
"There is a fair amount of uncertainty across the country about what to do," said Conrad Winn, president of COMPAS. "People are torn between a party they abhor, the Liberals, and the Conservatives, a party they don't know enough about and have suspicions about."
Polls show the Liberals in trouble in Quebec, where, until the election was called, they hoped to gain seats. Now polls show the Bloc Quebecois in the lead there.
Winn said pollsters found no increased support for separation in Quebec, but "there has been a dramatic increase in fury in Quebec over Liberal corruption." In many cases, respondents' remarks are "unprintable," he said.