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Canadians Face Tough Choices in Election

January 22, 2006

OTTAWA (AP) _ Canadians voting Monday for a new leader and House of Commons will choose between 13 years of Liberal Party rule or a new government that could shift the country toward a conservative right seeking to cut social programs funded by high taxes.

It’s a tough call for the nation’s 22.7 million registered voters.

Many support the social and economic policies of the Liberals and worry that Conservative leader Stephen Harper may be too extreme in his views on abortion and gay marriage, but Canadians also have grown weary of the broken promises and corruption scandals that have plagued the ruling party.

``Change is an issue for a lot of people,″ said Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. ``This is the Liberals seeking their fifth consecutive term, so a lot of people believe that it’s healthy to have a periodic alteration of parties, like the Americans, so that dynamic is out there.″

Though voters at some 60,000 polling stations from Newfoundland to Nunavut also will be considering candidates from the leftist New Democratic Party, French-speaking separatist Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party of environmentalists, the battle is largely between Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin and Harper.

Martin, 67, has trumpeted the eight consecutive budget surpluses under Liberal Party rule and sought to paint Harper as a right-winger posing as a moderate to woo mainstream voters. He claims Harper supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which was opposed by many Canadians, and would try to outlaw abortions and overturn Canada’s marriage rights for gays and lesbians _ all of which Harper denies.

``People will have to choose between the ultraconservative, extreme right-wing agenda of Stephen Harper and the progressive, ambitious plan we’re offering Canadians,″ Martin told a campaign rally Saturday.

Martin accused the Tories of muzzling their candidates in recent weeks to avoid alienating voters with contentious remarks about gay marriage and abortion, as they had during the last election.

The Liberal campaign appears to have worked with Joanna Lundy, a mental health worker in Vancouver, British Columbia. She will reluctantly vote Liberal in an effort to block Harper from becoming prime minister.

``He’s not open to diversity,″ she said. ``I think he’ll put us in the dark ages on women’s issues, abortion issues, gay issues.″

Harper, the youngest candidate at 46, has toned down the rightist rhetoric that cost him the last election in June 2004 and has painted the Liberals as a party that takes taxpayers for granted and is top-heavy on scandal.

He has pledged to establish a federal accountability commission to review government spending, to contribute $1,041 to Canadians with young children for day care and to cut the widely unpopular national sales tax from 7 percent to 5 percent within five years.

``If you want your taxes to go down, you have to vote for it. If you want a government that actually does something about crime, you have to vote for it. If you want to fix health care, you have to vote for it. If you want choice in child care, you have to vote for it. And the only way to get that is to vote for a new Conservative government,″ Harper said Sunday at a campaign rally.

Martin’s government and the 308-member House of Commons were dissolved in November after New Democrats defected from the governing coalition to support the Conservatives in a no-confidence vote.

The opposition said the Liberals no longer had the moral authority to govern, pointing to a party debacle in which several members were accused of misspending millions of dollars from a national unity fund, prompting a federal inquiry and several indictments.

Even after losing the vote and being forced to dissolve Parliament, Martin remained ahead in the polls and relatively popular with Canadians, who applauded his moves to legalize gay marriage nationwide, push through a national child-care program and stand up to Washington on security and trade issues.

But the Liberals’ numbers began slipping after a teenage girl was killed by a stray bullet in downtown Toronto while shopping on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Harper quickly responded with a platform that was tough on crime and promised stricter measures to keep illegal guns from being smuggled across the U.S. border.

The Liberals’ popularity slipped even more in early January when it was revealed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were investigating a possible leak by Liberal government officials that appeared to have influenced the stock market.

Though no one has been implicated of wrongdoing, Conservatives seized on the report to add to their campaign momentum. At one point last week, the Conservatives led in one poll by double digits, although their edge had dropped to 7-8 percentage points by Friday.

Postal worker Tim Armstrong is among the many Canadians tired of the scandals plaguing the Liberal government.

``I think they lack credibility and integrity,″ he said. ``Every time you turn around, there’s another scandal. It just goes on and on and on.″


On the Net:

Liberal Party: http://www.liberal.ca

Conservative Party: http://www.conservative.ca

New Democratic Party: http://www.ndp.ca

Bloc Quebecois: http://www.blocquebecois.org

Green Party: http://www.greenparty.ca

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