Mulroney considers future as his popularity plunges

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The Independent Online
THE Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, faces the crunch this weekend when he must say whether he plans to step down as leader of the Conservative Party or stay on for the political fight of his life in a general election.

All of the Conservative MPs and their advisers are having a special meeting here, allegedly to prepare policies for a new session of parliament which begins on Monday.

But there has been speculation that the unpopular Prime Minister may announce that he will step aside after nine years as leader of his party, in the hope that a new leader would stand a better chance of rebuilding Tory popularity before this year's election. That speculation increased when it became public in recent days that at least four of Mr Mulroney's senior cabinet ministers have been making secret preparations for a leadership campaign.

Although Mr Mulroney made history by winning two back-to-back majorities, the first in 1984, the second in 1988, something that no other Conservative Party leader has done this century, the political coalition he forged is now in disarray.

Mr Mulroney is a fluently bilingual Quebecker and a big factor in his initial success was his creation of a base for the Conservatives in that province. But that base has been eroded by the pro-independence Bloc Quebecois, led by one of Mr Mulroney's former ministers.

The failure of the Prime Minister's two major efforts to reform the constitution to give Quebec a special status has blocked a political recovery there.

But the Conservatives' most difficult problem is the sluggish economy that has not produced the benefits Mr Mulroney promised when his government negotiated a free-trade agreement with the United States. The government is now determined to go ahead with the conversion of this agreement into the North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes Mexico.

But the popular feeling is that a new deal will only increase the job losses when many US companies closed their branch plants in Canada and exploited the free-trade agreement to service Canadian markets from home.

Mr Mulroney's personal popularity has also dropped to single digits, the lowest for any Canadian leader since public opinion polls started after the Second World War. But the Prime Minister is confident of his ability as a political campaigner and is convinced that he could defeat his main opponent, the Liberal leader Jean Chretien, in a direct election fight, even though the current polls suggest that would be almost impossible.

Despite the Conservatives' low standing (in third place at about 15 per cent) the party seems to be prepared to allow Mr Mulroney to make his own decision. But it wants a decision now so it can decide whether to organise a leadership convention or an election campaign.