Canadian PM calls a snap election

Ottowa (Reuters) - Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, called a snap general election yesterday for 2 June, 17 months before it was due, in order to benefit from a solid Liberal lead in the polls.

"I will be asking Canadians to give the Liberal Party a new mandate to build on the record of the last four years," M Chretien said. He has only governed for three-and-a-half years but has such a lead in the polls over a badly split opposition that another majority government would be assured if voting trends hold until election day.

M Chretien, 63, was unable to tell a reporter a single, clear issue necessitating an election. "I'm asking the people of Canada to vote because we're well advanced in the fourth year of the mandate," he replied. After reflecting, he said that the Liberals' rivals wanted to turn the clock back, and he needed a new mandate to stop them.

In his formal remarks, he tried to show that relief was ahead after the tough deficit slashing his government had implemented. "Today we see that the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter," he said.

But he refused to yield to the calls for tax cuts being issued by the Conservative and Reform parties on his right, saying that it would risk all the gains Canada had made "to introduce a tax cut before the country can afford one".

One poll published on Saturday gave the Liberals a 24-point lead over their nearest rivals, the Conservatives, and a Gallup Canada poll on Friday put them 40 points ahead.

The opposition is further split with the Bloc Quebecois pushing for the separatist vote in Quebec while the New Democractic Party (NDP) is angling for the left with calls for more spending and higher taxes.

None is registering more than 18 per cent in the latest national polls, though in Quebec and the West respectively the Bloc and Reform have concentrated strength. Some pollsters say the Bloc could again return as the official opposition despite its desire to take mainly francophone Quebec out of Canada.

But about one-third of those polled are undecided, and Canadian voters have showed tremendous volatility in recent years, giving Chretien's rivals a glimmer of hope.

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