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Canada Liberals face two-way challenge

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's decision to call a snap election a year and a half before it is required has run into trouble before the campaign is 48 hours old.

The governing Liberals called the election for 2 June because there were indications that the strong lead they have maintained in the polls since the last election was starting to fray. They wanted to nip in the bud the first indications of a Conservative Party revival.

Another major reason for the early call was to take advantage of confusion within the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Since Lucien Bouchard, its founder, became premier of Quebec last year, the Bloc has no one at the federal level tocan match his charisma.

But Prime Minister Chretien has already come under criticism because he was able to offer no reason other than political opportunism for calling the election at this time. Callers on radio talk shows were overwhelmingly negative yesterday. The criticism was particularly strong in Western Canada where attention is focusing on the worst flooding in 50 years in Manitoba, and electioneering has been put on hold until the spring runoff subsides.

If the support levels registered in pre-election polls were to be maintained, the Liberals would have no trouble returning to Parliament with a strong majority, since there is no obvious alternative. The two strongest opposition parties are the Bloc, which stands only in Quebec, and Reform, which draws most of its support from the two most western provinces.

The only national opposition parties are the Conservatives - driven from power in 1993 and reduced to two seats in the House of Commons - and the centre-left New Democrats who also lost their official party status (requiring a minimum of 12 seats) in the last election.

But signs of a Conservative recovery have started to appear, mostly because of the Tories' dynamic young leader, Jean Charest. At 38 - compared with Mr Chretien's 63 - he portrays himself as the leader for the 21st Century.

Although recent polls are showing modest increases for the Conservative Party as a whole, Mr Charest is outscoring the prime minister on leadership ratings, especially in Mr Chretien's home province of Quebec.

In the first poll since the election call, the Liberals' strategy for fighting off the Bloc Quebecois seems to be working with the party moving into almost a tie in the popular vote. But with Liberal support concentrated heavily among English -speaking Canadians and immigrants, the Bloc would still win more seats.

Another reason for the early election is the need for time to prepare for what could be the final battle with the separatists in an another referendum expected next year. The Liberals will have to offer additional concessions to offset the powerful appeal of Premier Bouchard. But those are likely to be unpopular in many parts of English-speaking Canada so Mr Chretien will downplay them to run on his economic record.

Budget-cutting has reduced the deficit and helped bring intererest rates to their lowest levels in 35 years. The Liberals have also reduced unemployment although it still remains at 9.5 per cent of the labour force.

The Liberals' major disappointment, however, has been their failure to reduce separatist support in Quebec. They have not recovered from the shock of the 1995 referendum in which the separatists came within one percentage point of winning.

The separatists have convinced the French-speaking majority in Quebec that Mr Chretien is to blame for Quebec's failure to win a special constitutional status.

Mr Charest is unlikely to gain many seats in Quebec because the vote is so polarised - federalists will concentrate their support for the Liberals. But in the rest of the country, he is making a strong case that he is a more modern, foward-looking leader than Mr Chretien.

"The choice is whether old, complacent leaders stay the course, or we set the course," Mr. Charest said in his election launch.

The Liberals are almost certain to retain power. But they will have to win a series of regional battles as well as counter Mr Charest's revival. The New Democrats will attempt to challenge the Liberals throughout the country but they have not been able to counter the rightward drift of Canadian politics over the past decade.