Martin is humiliated as Canada throws out 'arrogant' Liberals

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Canada has moved cautiously to the right after voters in a general election chose Stephen Harper, the 46-year-old leader of the Conservative party, as the next prime minister but tied his hands by denying him the chance to form a majority government.

The results were a humiliation for the outgoing Prime Minister, Paul Martin, whose Liberal Party has governed Canada for the past 13 years. Addressing supporters in Montreal, he said he would stay in parliament but relinquish his leadership post, opening the race to succeed him.

It was not the sweet victory Mr Harper might have hoped for. His party took 124 seats in the new parliament in Monday's election, far short of the 155 needed for a majority. The Liberals won 103 seats, while 29 and 51 seats went respectively to the left-leaning New Democratic Party and to the pro-sovereignty Bloc Quebecois.

Analysts said the outcomereflected on the one hand a weariness among voters with the Liberals, whom they identify with broken promises, scandals and virtual one-party rule, but also a sense of uncertainty about Mr Harper and his conservative socio-economic ideals.

"Canadians did not endorse neo-conservatism when they elected him last night," The Globe and Mail newspaper commented. "They voted against a Liberal Party that had become smug and arrogant."

How much of his platform Mr Harper will be able actually to enact is an open question. While he will be looking to form an alliance with one of the other parties in parliament, none of them fit naturally with the Conservatives. The stage may be set for months of instability and a new election within two years.

Among the conservative-tinted promises made by Mr Harper were tax cuts, a pruning of Canada's generous welfare programmes, an increase in military spending, new anti-crime measures, more autonomy for the provinces and territories and a possible revisiting of recently passed laws allowing gay marriage.

He will, however, have a relatively free hand in foreign affairs, where he promises to be a much better friend to Washington than was Mr Martin. While he vowed not to send troops to Iraq, he backed President Bush's decision to invade. He has also criticised the Kyoto global warming treaty as unworkable.

It has been a long road for Canadian Conservatives, who saw their seats reduced to just two in parliament after the former prime minister Kim Campbell was trounced in 1993. Formed by a merger of two conservative parties in 2002, Mr Harper's party can now claim to be an electoral force from coast to coast. His candidates picked up important numbers of new seats in Ontario and in Quebec, where Bloc support shrank, pushing talk of another secession vote further into the shadows. The Tories won every available seat in Mr Harper's base of Alberta.

The New Democratic Party did unexpectedly well in British Columbia. But the meltdown that some polls had foreseen for the Liberals did not happen. They remained particularly impregnable in greater Toronto in Ontario. Among Liberal winners in the city was the former BBC commentator and Harvard professor, Michael Ignatieff.

While there has been talk of Mr Ignatieff surfacing as a potential new leader of the Liberal Party, the downfall of Mr Martin may have come too quickly for him to learn the ropes and build support. "I don't want to think, talk, discuss leadership at all," Mr Ignatieff said on Monday night.

Mr Harper is due to be sworn in as Prime Minister later this week. "Tonight, friends, our great country has voted for change, and Canadians have asked our party to take the lead in delivering that change," Mr Harper told cheering supporters. He took gentle aim at the Liberals' attempts to demonise him as a right-wing ideologue, ready to put soldiers on city streets. "Canadians can disagree, but it takes a lot to get Canadians to intensely hate something or hate somebody. And it usually involves [ice] hockey," he joked.

Enigmatic policy wonk who worked out how to win the centre ground

In Stephen Harper, Canadians have chosen a Prime Minister who few would call inspirational or charismatic. Rather, he has most commonly been described as a policy wonk who has reluctantly been dragged into competitive politics.

Even as he prepares to make his home in the Prime Minister's residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, he remains an enigma to most voters. An economist by training, his political résumé reads like that of a right-wing ideologue. Yet he won this election by stepping closer to the centre.

The son of an oil company accountant, Mr Harper was raised in Toronto. Asthma kept him out of sports but he was academically outstanding. Once an admirer of the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he embraced the political right while at university in Alberta.

There, he tied his fortunes to Preston Manning, founder of the deeply conservative Reform Party, which is now defunct. Serving first as Manning's policy adviser at the age of 27, he was elected in 1993. But he fell out with Manning and left parliament in 1997 to head a right-wing think-tank, the National Citizens' Coalition.

He engineered the merger of two struggling right-wing parties in 2002 to create the Conservative Party. His first election as leader, in 2004, ended in defeat to the Liberals, who painted him as a man who would destroy the liberal bedrock of society.

But this time he was credited with wearing a friendlier and more moderate face. Now Canadians will find out whether his new, softer stance was for real.

Harper won his seat with a majority of more than 30,000 votes, and becomes the first Prime Minister from outside Quebec in 26 years.

He is currently writing a book on ice hockey and while he is hardly known as the funny-man of Canadian politics, he is apparently a talented mimic with a repertoire that includes Desmond Tutu and former Canadian PM Brian Mulroney. But faced with leading a minority government, his honeymoon period may be short.