English-French tension threatens Canada's PM

The rise of the ultra-conservative Reform Party is threatening the majority of the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, although his Liberal Party will probably hang on to power in today's voting, following a divisive election campaign which has heightened English-French tensions.

The Reform Party, led by former petroleum consultant Preston Manning, is based in western Canada, and has made an assault on special status for Quebec the centrepiece of its election campaign.

The party is running only a handful of candidates in Quebec and Atlantic Canada and thus could not win enough seats to form a government. But it has solidified its support in Alberta and British Columbia by playing to the resentment in some English-speaking parts of the country that the French-speaking minority, based mostly in Quebec, has been getting special privileges in the Canadian confederation.

The Reform Party has also been pushing a law-and-order agenda which calls for a referendum to consider re-establishing capital punishment for murder and has accused the Liberals of being too soft on violent criminals while ignoring the rights of victims.

The party has exploited a change in the electoral law which allows criminals in prison to vote for the first time to push its theme.

Even though the Reform Party has no presence in Quebec, it has seized on the debate about the future of Quebec and what concessions, if any, should be made to counter the threat of separatism as a vehicle to raise support in the rest of the country for its hard-nosed approach.

The status of Quebec within the Canadian confederation has bedevilled national politics since the first separatist party won power in the Quebec provincial election in 1976, and this is the second time that a federal wing of that party - the Bloc Quebecois - has run candidates in a national election.

In the current parliament, the Bloc which runs candidates only in Quebec won enough seats in what has become a five-party group to form the official opposition. But in the intervening period since the last national election, there has been a provincial election where the separatists have regained power. Now some of the Quebec nationalists are questioning whether having a Quebec-only party in the national parliament is still relevant.

A combination of those doubts and the poor performance of the Bloc Quebecois leader, Gilles Duceppe, has created some new opportunities in Quebec for the Conservative Party led by a charismatic and fluently bilingual lawyer, Jean Charest. His promise of reaching out to nationalist Quebecers by offering to renegotiate a partnership with the rest of the country has proved more attractive to many French-speaking Quebecers than the status quo option being offered by Prime Minister Chretien and the Liberals.

In an attempt to shore up the separatist vote, both the Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard, and his predecessor, Jacques Parizeau, have been called into the campaign by the Bloc Quebecois. It has been the Reform Party's anti-Quebec rhetoric, however, that has been more effective in stopping the haemorrhage of the separatist vote.

Even though Prime Minister Chretien is also a Quebecer, he has been less popular in his home province than he is in the rest of the country.

But he has stumbled through an election campaign without ever providing a convincing reason for calling an election after only three and a half years, when he did not need to call one before 1998.

Without a major issue other than to boast about the government's record in improving Canada's fiscal performance, the Liberals have been a target for all of the other parties and have been damaged on different issues by different parties.

Jumping into the leadership vacuum, Mr Manning has questioned the ability of prime ministers from Quebec properly to represent the country in the national unity debate and has generally been seen to exacerbate English- French relations.

But the Liberals have retained their support in the largest and most prosperous province, Ontario, and that will allow them to hold on to power in a divided parliament.

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