Chrétien to step down as Canada's PM after party mutiny

Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Western world's longest serving government leader, has announced he will step down in the face of a growing mutiny with his own Liberal Party.

When he leaves office in February 2004, Mr Chrétien will say goodbye to more than a decade of leading his country. Since 1993, he has overseen steady economic growth and the taming of government debt. He also narrowly defeated a referendum in Quebec for separation in 1995.

But his footing has slipped in recent months as critics of his sometimes autocratic style have grown bolder. Most significant was a public row with the former finance minister Paul Martin, who was fired in June after orchestrating a behind-the-scenes campaign to win the leadership. The two main contenders to replace the Prime Minister are Mr Martin, 64, and John Manley, the new Finance Minister who is the favourite of Mr Chrétien.

From a working-class town in Quebec, Mr Chrétien, 68, acknowledged at a hastily arranged press conference that the in-fighting had to stop. "This summer we have not been focused on governing," he said. "We are not doing our job. Canadians don't like that."

By bowing out, Mr Chrétien, famous for his gravel voice and also for mangling the English and French languages through a mouth made slightly crooked by a birth defect, may be assuring that his legacy stays intact. He led his party to three straight parliamentary majorities as the opposition crumbled.

The impact on Canada's place in the world of a switch to Mr Martin – the probable outcome – should be minimal. He and Mr Chrétien were arm-in-arm on economic policy for years and share most of the same political beliefs. Mr Martin also enjoys considerable international standing.

"I will not run again," Mr Chrétien said, with some of his supporters shedding tears in the room. "I will fulfil my mandate and focus entirely on governing from now on until February 2004. At which time my work will be done."

Analysts have been warning that Mr Martin's challenge has stirred enough fervour among disgruntled liberals that Mr Chrétien would lose a fight for the leadership.

His biographer, Lawrence Martin, said Mr Chrétien "had to recognise the forces on the other side were too overwhelming to prevent this from happening".

Mr Chrétien said he had decided two years ago that he would try to run for a fourth term. This contradicted statements made earlier this year when he said the opposite.

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