Canada's Prime Minister prepares for early election

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Inspired by glowing polls and a buoyant economy, Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, has decided to tempt fate and his political legacy by calling a federal election a year and a half before the end of his term.

Inspired by glowing polls and a buoyant economy, Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, has decided to tempt fate and his political legacy by calling a federal election a year and a half before the end of his term.

It is one of Ottawa's worst-kept secrets that Mr Chrétien will visit the Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, today and ask her to dissolve parliament by signing the election writ. Polling will be on 27 November.

Although he risks a backlash for what is widely seen as brazen political opportunism, Mr Chrétien and his Liberal Party advisers have decided it is worth that risk to attempt to crush the reorganised and revitalised official opposition party, the Canadian Alliance, before it can gain momentum.

Mr Chrétien, one of the most savvy and long-serving federal politicians (he was first elected in 1962), is pursuing his own instincts against the wishes of most of his senior advisers and the Liberal MPs in his caucus in calling the early election. Most proposed that he wait until next year because a four-year term is more traditional in Canada. There is also a substantial faction within the governing Liberal Party which believes that, after 10 years as leader and seven-and-a-half as Prime Minister, Mr Chrétien, who will be 67 in January, should step aside and give someone else a chance to lead. The most likely successor is the finance minister, Paul Martin, who is seen as responsible for the Liberals' fiscal miracle.

The Liberals inherited a C$42bn (£19bn) annual deficit when they took power in 1993. By a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and the most sustained period of economic growth since the 1960s, the Liberals have turned that into a predicted $15bn surplus this year.

Mr Chrétien, however, wants to win an unprecedented third consecutive majority. Once he has ensured his place in the history books, he is likely to retire in a couple of years.

For most of the past seven years, he and the Liberals have been hardly threatened in the House of Commons because the opposition has been divided among four squabbling parties, including the Canadian Alliance, which began as a breakaway from the Conservatives.

The reorganisation of what is now the Canadian Alliance, with a youthful and vigorous but radically conservative new leader, Stockwell Day, means that the Liberals now face a credible alternative.

Many right-wing Conservatives have migrated to Mr Day and the Alliance while some more centrist Tories have thrown in their lot with the Liberals. All but one of the Conservatives' Quebec MPs have also crossed the floor to the Liberals, making the fight there a confrontation between federalists represented by the Liberals and separatists represented by the Bloc Quebecois.

Even though opinion polls indicate a strong desire in the electorate for change, that has yet to develop into a decision to vote for the Canadian Alliance. But it could, so Mr Chrétien has decided to gamble. He believes Canadians will not risk upsetting the government when the economy is so good. Canada leads the OECD countries this year in gross domestic product growth and unemployment is below 7 per cent.

To reinforce this notion of the good times, Mr Martin tabled a mini-budget last week (the normal time for budgets is in February) which cut income taxes substantially. This was aimed at countering the appeal of the Canadian Alliance which is campaigning almost exclusively on promises to cut government spending and taxes.

Mr Chrétien got into political trouble when he tried to capitalise on the outpouring of grief and sympathy following the death of the former prime minister Pierre Trudeau this month. Although he had been out of office for 16 years, many Canadians consider Trudeau to be the outstanding Canadian of the 20th century, responsible for modernising the country and opening it to the world.

When Mr Chrétien said he would campaign to preserve Trudeau values and, without consultation, that he was renaming Canada's highest mountain after the former prime minister, there was uproar. Mr Chrétien backed down and sent his culture minister into Parliament to apologise.

All of the pre-election polls give the Liberals a 15 to 20 per cent lead over their closest rivals. The Liberal gamble is that nothing will happen during the five-week election campaign that could strengthen the still amorphous desire for change.