Canadian Liberals cling to power as a minority government

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The Independent US

Canada's Liberal Party, led by Paul Martin, the Prime Minister, withstood a strong assault from the recently reconstituted Conservative Party to cling to power after a fractious national election campaign. But the Liberals will need the support of a resurgent New Democratic Party (NDP) to survive in Parliament.

Canada's Liberal Party, led by Paul Martin, the Prime Minister, withstood a strong assault from the recently reconstituted Conservative Party to cling to power after a fractious national election campaign. But the Liberals will need the support of a resurgent New Democratic Party (NDP) to survive in Parliament.

The Liberals won 135 seats, and together with the New Democrats' 19 they will be one seat short of a majority.

The outcome of Monday's election will mean that the right-of-centre Mr Martin will need to make concessions to the left both within his own party and the NDP.

One of the first tests is likely to be the Liberals' intention to join the United States in the development of a national missile defence system which could lead to the weaponisation of space. The NDP is opposed to both the National Missile Defence programme and Mr Martin's promises to increase defence spending, preferring more resources to be put into health care, environmental protection and help for cash-strapped city governments.

Public opinion has been sharply divided about Canada's relationship with the United States. The Conservatives wanted Canada to join the Americans and British in the invasion of Iraq, and Mr Martin, who was out of the government at the time, was more sympathetic towards the American policy than the former prime minister, Jean Chretien.

The final votes contained several surprises and have called into question the accuracy of the many pre-election public opinion polls, which had consistently over-estimated Conservative and underestimated Liberal strength. The Conservative wave that was supposed to wash over Ontario, the most populous province with 106 of the 308 seats in the federal Parliament, failed to happen.

The Liberals have traditionally done well in Ontario and their campaign successfully linked the federal Conservative Party and its new leader, Stephen Harper, to the neo-conservative policies of an unpopular Conservative provincial government. That government, defeated last autumn, had cut back on social services and education to finance tax cuts for the more prosperous.

The polls had accurately predicted a major victory for the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party which only ran candidates in that province, with the long-term goal of leading the province to independence from Canada. The party won 54 of the 75 seats in Quebec, which amounts to a major affront to Mr Martin. But because the Liberals did better than expected elsewhere, the Prime Minister will not need to make deals with the Bloc to continue in power.

The Bloc Quebecois had also put its sovereignty objective on hold, seeking voter support only for a mandate to defend Quebec interests within the national government.

Canada has not had a tradition of formal coalitions when no party has succeeding in winning a clear majority in Parliament, but there have been informal understandings between the Liberals and the NDP involving an agreed agenda.

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