Harper to lead Canadian right out of the wilderness

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The Independent US

When Stephen Harper, the leader of the Canadian Conservative party, entered the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Montreal on Wednesday night, the standing-room-only crowd blew plastic horns and rhythmically chanted his name, greeting him as a conquering hero.

Voting in Canada's general election is on Monday and anything can happen. But study the polls and the message is clear: Mr Harper is poised to lead the Conservatives out of 12 years in the political wilderness to be the next prime minister.

All that remains to be settled, it seems, is whether Mr Harper has created the momentum to win an outright majority of the seats in Ottawa's parliament, or whether, like the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister, Paul Martin, he will rule through minority government.

Any kind of victory for Mr Harper, 46, will be a calamity for the Liberals and signify one of the biggest political upsets in modern Canadian history. When the campaign started before Christmas, the betting was on Mr Martin clinging on, in spite of damage done to his party by a string of scandals.

It will also not go unnoticed abroad. In Mr Harper, the Bush White House will have a new partner who has already voiced his impatience with the Kyoto global warming accord and signalled his interest in joining the US anti-ballistic missile shield Liberals would have nothing to do with. But it may be most keenly noted by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Consider the storyline: In 1993 the Liberals, then under Jean Chrétien, ended a long Tory streak of government. Ten years on, a tired Mr Chrétien hands over to his former finance minister, Mr Martin. Mr Martin survives a 2004 election, but only just. Then - maybe - a fresh-faced Tory leader blows him away.

Nowhere is the sea-change more palpable than in Quebec, which was until recently a wasteland for the Conservatives. When the present parliament was dissolved, seats from Quebec were shared mostly by Liberals and the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. The Tories had not one. Polls now show them with double the numbers of the Liberals here, and Mr Harper won the endorsement this week of the French-speaking La Presse newspaper.

"Unbelievably shocking," muttered Donald Gallop, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, who had driven through blinding snow to the Marriott to see Mr Harper. He attended a similar rally for Mr Harper in Montreal at the start of the campaign and barely 100 people showed. On this night, there were 600.

"It used to be that if you said you were a Conservative in this town people somehow thought you just weren't with it," said Mr Gallop, who lives in west Montreal. "And if you went looking for Conservative votes, there wasn't a chance."

All around him, supporters of Harper wore shiny badges reading, "The New Tories" or, in French, "Les Nouveaux Bleus".

Mr Harper, who has youthful, almost schoolboyish looks but little aptitude for oratory, extended a welcome to his New Blues. "I don't ask you, 'Where have you come from'?" he said in near-fluent French. "I only ask one thing. 'Will you come with me to build a new, better Canada'?"

That so many are answering his call is explained in part by the mud that stuck to the Liberals after revelations that it had wasted millions in taxpayers' money on Liberal-friendly advertising agencies here, ostensibly to work on campaigns to promote a federal Canada against any notion of separation for Quebec. Some of that money may have drifted back into Liberal hands.

Mr Martin has been accused of showing hesitation in leadership and bungling his campaign. His attempt to portray Mr Harper, notably in TV spots, as a dangerous radical bent on dismantling activist federal government and as a kind of "mini-me" of Mr Bush seems to have back-fired.

Mr Harper's roots are well to the right of centre. A co-founder of the now-defunct Reform Party that sprang out of Alberta in the early 1990s, he once called Canada a "northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term".

He lost the 2004 election, in part because of a reactionary image, not helped when supporters said they would impose new limits on abortion. This time, he has moved decisively to the centre. He says he will use his influence to prevent backbenchers trying to pass legislation on abortion.

While he has voiced support for Mr Bush on Iraq, he has said he will not send Canadian troops. And he has promised a free vote in parliament to consider if a new law legalising gay marriage should be rescinded.

Ignatieff struggles in Toronto

There may have been times in the past several weeks when Michael Ignatieff, 58, the academic and commentator well known to viewers of BBC 2, wished he had never left Harvard for the grind of Canada's election in suburban Toronto.

Parachuted in by the Liberals to represent the supposedly safe seat of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, a constituency of wealthy homes and gritty east European neighbourhoods, Mr Ignatieff has not had an easy welcome. He is dogged by protesters who accuse him of being bound to President George Bush on Iraq and even of supporting so-called "torture-lite" for suspected terrorists - a charge he denies.

The opposition Conservatives seem poised to sweep aside the Liberals nationally and Mr Ignatieff risks being swept away in the tide.

But the predicament of the Liberals may have an upside for the academic. A loss for the party on Monday will surely mean the leader, Paul Martin, will be sacked, opening the door for Mr Ignatieff to take over. But first he must win his seat, where he leads in the polls by the slimmest of margins.