Canada's minority Liberal Party government lost a vote of confidence Monday, ending the rule of Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose tenure was largely overshadowed by a patronage scandal.
The no-confidence motion was passed by a vote of 171 to 133, eliciting loud cheers from opposition legislators.
Martin was set to visit Governor General Michaelle Jean -- Canada's ceremonial head of state -- on Tuesday to ask her to dissolve Parliament and set an election date. Martin is widely expected to call for a vote on Jan. 23, setting the scene for the country's first winter campaign in more than two decades.
Recent opinion polls show the most likely result of the elections will be another minority Liberal government, which would again be forced to rely on support from other parties to stay in power.
Martin, a former popular finance minister, took over as prime minister in December 2003 with hopes of spending a decade in power.
But he ran into trouble in February 2004 when it was revealed that $85 million in government advertising and sponsorship contracts had been funneled to Liberal-friendly firms for little or no work. He lost his parliamentary majority in the June 2004 elections as voter anger was widespread.
The opposition said the scandal was the main reason it pressed for quick elections.
"This is not just the end of a tired, directionless, scandal-clad government. It's the start of a bright new future for our country," said Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper.
"We have to clean things up. We have a lot of cleaning up to do," he told cheering legislators, comparing the Liberals to a "thief who cries out 'Fire!' in a crowded restaurant so when no one's looking he can clear out the cash register."
Martin made no mention of the scandal Monday and told supporters he would run on the government's economic record.
"We will be entering this campaign on a balance sheet we can be proud of. Our economy is a strong one . . . and that is the result of the hard work and the good management of a Liberal government," he said.
The Liberals came to power inheriting a $36 billion budget deficit from the outgoing Conservative government. The budget deficit is now gone, the economy is booming and unemployment is at a 30-year low.
A Pollara opinion poll released Monday showed public support for the Liberals at 36 percent, compared with 31 percent for the Conservatives -- figures that show Martin has scant hope of gaining a majority.
The Liberals now hold 133 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives have 98, the separatist Bloc Quebecois has 53 and the left-leaning New Democrats have 18. There are four independent legislators and two vacant seats.
"We'll get about the same number as we did last time, around 130 or 131 seats," said one Liberal campaign strategist who correctly predicted the result of the June 2004 elections.
Pollara pollster Michael Marzolini said the campaign would be the most volatile since the 1988 struggle over trade policies.
"Both Conservative and Liberal voters are on a knife-edge between strong dislike and reluctant acceptance toward both. It won't take much for either party's supporters to run the other way," he said.
He said the public was frustrated with the last elections, pointing to the Liberals' demonization of Harper, the Conservative leader, for being reactionary and the Conservatives' demonization of the Liberals for the patronage scandal.
The last minority government to lose a confidence vote was that of Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark, who was defeated over his budget in December 1979. He lost the subsequent February 1980 elections to the Liberals.