Tuesday, January 24, 2006Associated Press
OTTAWA — Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party won national elections Monday and ended 13 years of Liberal rule, giving Canada a leader who was expected to move the country to the right on social and economic issues and bolster ties with the United States.
Prime Minister Paul Martin conceded defeat after official results gave the challengers a near-insurmountable lead. However, it appeared likely the Conservatives's victory margin would be too narrow to avoid ruling as a minority government, making it difficult to get legislation through a divided House of Commons.
There were cheers at the Conservative Party headquarters in Calgary as the media predictions were announced. Harper was expected to give his victory speech later in the night after all the results are announced.
"We know that there is an undeniable and unstoppable sentiment for change in the country," deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay told supporters. "A change towards a new, clean, constructive attitude that will exist within a Conservative government."
Relations with the Bush administration will likely improve under Harper as his ideology runs along the same lines of many U.S. Republicans.
Harper has said he would reconsider a U.S. missile defense scheme rejected by the current Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin. He also said he wanted to move beyond the Kyoto debate by establishing different environmental controls, spend more on the Canadian military, expand its peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Haiti and tighten security along the border with the United States in an effort to prevent terrorists and guns from crossing the frontier.
According to official results, Conservatives either had won or were leading in races for 122 seats; the Liberals had either won or were leading in races for 103 seats; the separatist Bloc Quebecois appeared to have 50 seats and the New Democratic Party was poised to gain 31 seats. The country's major media outlets called the election for the Conservatives shortly after polls closed nationwide at 10 p.m. EST.
Martin conceded defeat and said he would step down as head of the party, though remain in Parliament to represent the Montreal seat he won again. It was an unusual move to do both on the same night, but Martin appeared upbeat and eager to continue to fight the Conservatives from the opposition benches of the House.
"I have just called Stephen Harper and I've offered him my congratulations," Martin told a subdued crowd at his headquarters in Montreal. "We differ on many things, but we all share a believe in the potential and the progress of Canada."
The Conservative victory ended more than a decade of Liberal Party rule and shifted the traditionally liberal country to the right on socio-economic issues such as health care, taxation, abortion and gay marriage.
Many Canadians had grown weary of the broken promises and corruption scandals under the Liberal Party and were apparently willing to give Harper the benefit of doubt, despite fears the 46-year-old economist was too extreme in his views opposing abortion and gay marriage.
During the campaign, Harper pledged to cut the red tape in social welfare programs, lower the national sales tax from 7 percent to 5 percent and grant more autonomy and federal funding to Canada's 13 provinces and territories.
The Liberals have angered Washington in recent years, condemning the war in Iraq, refusing to join the continental anti-ballistic missile plan and criticizing President Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions and enacting punitive Canadian lumber tariffs.
Martin, 67, had trumpeted eight consecutive budget surpluses and sought to paint Harper as a right-winger posing as a moderate to woo mainstream voters. He claimed Harper supports the war in Iraq, which most Canadians oppose, and would try to outlaw abortion and overturn gay marriage.
Harper denied those claims and said Sunday that Martin had failed to swing voters against him.
"Canadians can disagree, but it takes a lot to get Canadians to intensely hate something or hate somebody. And it usually involves hockey," Harper quipped.
Voters cast ballots at 60,000 polling stations amid unseasonably mild winter weather. Turnout from the country's 22.7 million registered voters was expected to be better than the 60 percent of the June 2004 election, the lowest number since 1898.
William Azaroff, 35, voted for the left-of-center New Democratic Party but conceded a Conservative government was likely to win.
"I think it's a shame," said the business manager from Vancouver, British Columbia. "I think the last government was actually quite effective for Canadians. I think a Conservative government is just a backlash against certain corruption and the sense of entitlement."
Martin's government and the 308-member House of Commons were dissolved in November after New Democrats defected from the governing coalition to support the Conservatives in a no-confidence vote amid a corruption scandal involving the misuse of funds for a national unity program in Quebec.
An investigation absolved the prime minister of wrongdoing but accused senior Liberals of taking kickbacks and misspending tens of millions of dollars in public funds.
Just as campaigning hit full swing over the Christmas holidays, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced they were investigating a possible leak by Liberal government officials that appeared to have influenced the stock market.
When the 38th Parliament was dissolved, the Liberals had 133 seats, the Conservatives had 98, the Quebec separatist party Bloc Quebecois had 53 and the New Democrats had 18. There also were four Independents and two vacancies.