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Regional divisions in spotlight as Canadians elect new government

June 3, 1997

OTTAWA (AP) _ An election campaign that at first seemed dully predictable ended in suspense Monday, with Canada facing the prospect of a weaker federal government and a Parliament more divided than ever by regional interests.

For the first time, a party playing on anti-Quebec sentiment seemed likely to emerge as the main opposition force in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s centrist Liberal Party, which five weeks ago was cocky enough to call the election 18 months early, was virtually certain to win the largest share of the 301 seats at stake in the five-party race.

But early results indicated the Liberals _ who held 174 seats overall going in to the election _ might lose their outright majority. They had held 31 of the 32 seats in the Maritime provinces, but swiftly lost more than a dozen _ including the Nova Scotia seat of Health Minister David Dingwall.

After the Liberals, the next biggest blocks of seats were expected to go to Quebec separatists and to the western-based, right-wing Reform Party, which opposes any special status for Quebec.

The Liberals’ claim to be the only truly national party in Canada was in jeopardy. They were in danger of winning only a few seats in the far west, perhaps leaving populous Ontario as their only real stronghold.

About 20 million Canadians were eligible to cast ballots at 53,000 polling stations spread across the world’s second-largest country in terms of geography. In all, 1,672 candidates were running.

Reform, which won 52 seats during its first national campaign in 1993, tried to expand its support with suggestions that Chretien and other mainstream leaders have spent too much energy trying to defuse separatist sentiment in Quebec.

Reform’s leader, Preston Manning, was denounced as an anti-Quebec bigot by several of his rivals, including Jean Charest, whose Progressive Conservative Party was battling with Reform for right-of-center votes.

``When he starts calling people bigots, this is a sign of a big old party in deep trouble,″ Manning said of Charest. ``Is he saying the millions who are going to support us this time are bigoted Canadians?″

Chretien, 63, was seeking to become the first Liberal prime minister since 1953 to win consecutive majorities. He led the Liberals to a landslide win in 1993 as voters fed up with Brian Mulroney reduced the Progressive Conservatives from a parliamentary majority to only two seats.

When Chretien called this election April 27, opinion polls indicated the Liberals would add to the 174 seats they held in the outgoing Parliament.

But the Liberals ran a lackluster campaign, and the final polls last week indicated they would likely lose some seats. They need at least 151 to retain a majority.

The Liberals’ main first-term accomplishment was to slash a record $31 billion deficit by more than two-thirds. But they were unable to bring down a jobless rate now standing at 9.6 percent, and they failed to prevent increasing polarization on the status of Quebec.

The Bloc Quebecois, fielding candidates only in Quebec, entered the election holding 50 of the French-speaking province’s 75 seats. Reform also held 50 seats, all but one of them in the west.

The Progressive Conservatives, though projected to receive about a fifth of the overall vote, was expected to win only a couple of dozen seats at best because its support was spread thinly nationwide. The left-wing New Democratic Party merely hoped to win the 12 seats needed to qualify for a role in parliamentary debates.

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