Canada facing cold trip to the polls as Martin is swept away

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The Independent US

A reluctant Canada pulls on its political snow-boots today and embarks on a gruelling mid-winter general election after the toppling of the government of Paul Martin in a no-confidence vote in parliament last night.

Mr Martin, 57, whose minority Liberal Party government was swept away in a lopsided 171-to-133 vote, will declare parliament dissolved this morning and set a polling day for mid-January. It is the first time in quarter of a century that a Canadian government has been toppled by the opposition in parliament.

Elected only 17 months ago, Mr Martin has been on the ropes since February following a corruption scandal involving the channelling of public funds to advertising companies allegedly in return for kickbacks. The companies were to promote national unity in the face of pressure from Quebec to secede.

The crisis began last week when the Prime Minister lost the support of the New Democrat Party, which agreed to join with the main opposition Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois to force him from power.

Few Canadians will relish a campaign in mid-winter, spanning Christmas and New Year, when much of the country is plunged in Arctic cold. It will be the first time they have been asked to vote in January for more than 20 years.

There will be a measure of national embarrassment in this latest political drama, meanwhile, as the no-confidence vote in Ottawa coincided precisely yesterday with the opening of a United Nations conference in Montreal on setting new goals to curb global warming and climate change.

Organisers said that the outgoing Environment Minister, Stephane Dion, would eschew campaigning as much as possible for the duration of the conference, which he was set to chair.

The backdrop of the Quebec kickbacks scandal is likely to ensure an unusually ill-tempered and brutish election campaign. Last week, the leader of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper, implied in Parliament that organised crime had played a part in the kickback scheme. Mr Martin accused him of "false smears". Lawyers for the government threatened legal action against the Conservative leadership.

Pressure has been building for months on Mr Martin to call an election. His offer to go to the country in March was rejected by Conservatives. Mr Harper said the Liberals had "lost the moral authority to govern" and that the party had become permeated "by a culture of entitlement and corruption".

Recent polls suggest that were the election to be held today, the Liberals may just squeeze out a win, but would once more find themselves with a minority government forced to find support from at least one of the other parties. If it were to lose, Liberals may seek to remove Mr Martin as their leader.

An intriguing side-show will be the expected bid by the renowned scholar, foreign policy expert and novelist Michael Ignatieff to run as a Liberal candidate for a seat in suburban Toronto. There has been speculation that Mr Ignatieff is being groomed to succeed Mr Martin as Liberal leader.

While the Quebec imbroglio continues to dog Mr Martin, his political standing will be buoyed considerably by the economic record achieved by his government, which leads the G8 countries in economic indicators, with several years of budget surpluses and record low unemployment. But hamstrung by the minority status of his government, Mr Martin will find himself forced from power with many of his policy pledges undelivered.

A leader in the making?

* The renowned foreign policy commentator and writer Michael Ignatieff was addressing a conference in Toronto five years ago about Canada's role in human rights when an audience member asked why, if he cared so much about Canadian politics, he didn't participate in it. And Mr Ignatieff thought, "Indeed."

Now the 58-year-old academic who has taught human rights policy for the past five years to students at Harvard University is giving his answer: as Canada looked likely to plunge into a new general election campaign this morning, space has been made for him to run for a safe seat for the Liberal Party in Toronto.

It is not just that Mr Ignatieff, a contributor over the years to the BBC and The New York Times, is likely to win. The buzz has been audible ever since he addressed the Liberal Party's annual convention last winter: in the eyes of some he has the superstar status - and telegenic good looks - to succeed Paul Martin as the party leader one day.

Unsurprisingly, he is trying to play down such over-heated talk, taking time at the weekend to praise Mr Martin's record. "I wouldn't be running if I didn't feel the Prime Minister of Canada is doing the best job he can under very difficult circumstances," he said politely.