Canada's PM fights for credibility: Two weeks before election day, polls predict no overall winner

TWO WEEKS before election day, Kim Campbell appears headed for the history books not only as Canada's first female prime minister but also its shortest serving one.

She has broken tradition by campaigning through Canada's Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but Ms Campbell and her Conservative Party are losing ground to their traditional rival, the Liberal Party led by Jean Chretien, and more significantly, to two regional parties which threaten to transform Canadian federal politics.

Based on weekend polls, Mr Chretien's Liberals, with 37 per cent of decided voters, will have the largest number of seats after the 25 October election (compared with 22 per cent for the Conservatives) and will form the government. But the Liberals are unlikely to have an absolute majority because of the growing strength of the Bloc Quebecois, which supports the separation of Quebec, and the Reform Party, a right-wing populist movement with roots in Western Canada.

In the month since Ms Campbell called the election, she has experienced a precipitous decline in popular support. After replacing Brian Mulroney as Conservative leader in June, Ms Campbell travelled the country boosting her image as an unconventional politician with a fresh approach. She entered the election campaign with personal approval ratings of between 50 and 60 per cent compared with Mr Chretien who languished between 20 and 30 per cent, while the leaders of the other parties were around 10 per cent range. But her campaign has been plagued by mishaps. The two new regional parties have capitalised on the widespread distaste for the old political elites and the sour aftertaste of a failed constitutional referendum campaign a year ago.

The Bloc Quebecois seems poised to sweep up to 60 of the 75 seats allocated to Quebec in the 295-seat federal parliament, even though its aims appear contradictory and its leader, Lucien Bouchard, says he has no interest in exercising political power and would not join a coalition with other parties to form a government. The Bloc's strength, combined with other regional splits, could prevent traditional parties from gaining a majority. Mr Bouchard's sole interest, he says, is to be a strong voice in Ottawa to protect Quebec interests before a Quebec provincial election next year and an expected referendum on Quebec's future relationship with Canada. As he told a group of students at Laval University in Quebec City last week: 'We're on the verge of something important that will change our collective lives. It's the future that will lend its sense to the present, and the verdict of time is not yet rendered.'

Such words might sound like gobbledygook outside Quebec, but they sum up the ambiguity within the province towards the concept of sovereignty. Recent polls indicate many Quebeckers think a sovereign Quebec would still send MPs to Ottawa, still use the Canadian dollar, and that Quebeckers would continue to carry Canadian passports. The results suggest that even if the Bloc attracts a majority of Quebeckers' votes in this election, it would represent a rejection of the status quo but not necessarily an endorsement of a fully independent Quebec. Just as the Bloc Quebecois is running candidates only in Quebec, the Reform Party is presenting candidates only in English-speaking Canada, and a driving force is its opposition to the bilingualism which has been a feature of the federal government throughout the country.

The Reform Party wants to stem multi-racial immigration into Canada, and its charismatic leader, Preston Manning, is campaigning for a squeeze on federal government, public spending cuts and tax cuts. The party wants to cut unemployment benefit, old age pensions, medicare and subsidies to business.

Against these pressures, Ms Campbell has been unable to articulate a clear political alternative, and her initial popularity has been diminished by gaffes and poor performances in two television debates last week.

A fiscal conservative, the Prime Minister says her priority is to eliminate deficits but she admitted this would mean little relief in unemployment until the year 2000. Mr Chretien and the Liberals promise more conventional kick-start economic programmes, including roadbuilding and infrastructure work to create employment. The veteran Liberal leader, has been dismissed as a political has-been, but his slow and steady approach may be working.

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