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Sunday, January 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Canada appears ready to turn to the right in upcoming national elections

The Washington Post

BURLINGTON, Ontario — Rob Hlohinec, 58, doesn't see what's so bad about Americans. He even admits to knowing some.

"I've talked to Americans. They want the same things we want," Hlohinec said as he watched a Conservative Party campaign rally.

At his side, Irene Heller, 82, agreed. She said that was one reason she would vote to replace the government headed by the Liberal Party's Paul Martin in Canadian national elections on Monday. Martin, she said, uses anti-Americanism to try to win votes.

"He gets votes when he knocks America, and I don't approve of that," said Heller, who braved a sleet storm to attend the rally.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper holds a strong lead in public-opinion polls, fueled largely by dissatisfaction with 12 years of Liberal rule. Among the dissatisfied are voters unhappy with the growing divide between Canada and the United States.

Polls show a deep antipathy among Canadians toward the Bush administration, made more acute by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That has carried over to a more general anti-Americanism, and the country's academics have made a cottage industry of talking about the divergence of values between Canadians and Americans.

Martin sought to corral that sentiment by portraying Harper as dangerously pro-American. But the strategy appeared to backfire, exacerbating Martin's slide in the polls.

Canada's parliamentary elections

When: Monday.

Where: The world's second-largest country with a land mass of 3.85 million square miles, stretching across six time zones.

Who: About 22.5 million people in a country of 32.4 million are eligible to vote.

Why: The Liberal Party, with 133 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons, has been in power 12 years. The Liberals won majority victories in 1993, 1997 and 2000, helped by vote-splitting between two right-wing opposition parties. In December 2003, those parties merged into the Conservative Party, which has 98 seats. In June 2004, the Liberals lost their majority amid public anger over a patronage scandal and were forced to rely on the left-leaning New Democratic Party, with 18 seats, for support. The wild card is the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which has 53 seats. There are four independents and two vacant seats.

Source: Reuters

"In the last campaign, those attack ads worked. This time they won't. People are just fed up," said Peter Bryce, 46, a financial manager who said the political rally in this town west of Toronto was the first he had attended.

The Conservative Party's lead in the polls hovers at about 10 percentage points, putting the party in position to lead a coalition government that probably would be more in tune with the Bush administration.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington, D.C., research group, has described Harper as "pro-Iraqi war, anti-Kyoto, socially conservative ... [President] Bush's new best friend."

The Liberal Party's attack on Harper's American sympathies was mostly political posturing; Martin has sought good relations with the United States, but his party has a mixed history on the issue. The prime minister had to expel one Parliament member who stomped on a Bush doll on television, and a spokeswoman for his Liberal Party predecessor, Jean Chretien, referred to the U.S. president as a "moron."

The Liberals successfully erased Harper's lead in the polls in the 2004 election by painting him as too pro-American. But this time, some Canadians say they feel the anti-Americanism has gone too far.

"You would think that issue would be more fertile ground because there has been an erosion" in the relationship between Canadians and Americans since 2004, said Frank Graves, president of Ekos, an Ottawa polling company. "Both countries look at each other with less regard than before."

But surprisingly, Graves said, "the America card doesn't seem to have had much traction this time."

"We think it's wrong. We're not against Americans," said Linda Armstrong, 60, who attended the Burlington rally with her husband, Mike, 61, like her a retired schoolteacher.

But it's not as if Harper is wrapping himself in the Stars and Stripes. With an eye to the perpetual Canadian ambivalence toward its powerful neighbor, Harper has maintained a distance from the United States on the campaign trail.

His standard campaign stump speech vows "not to engage with allies in a false war of words." But he follows that quickly with pledges to be tougher on the United States in disputes such as the one over softwood lumber, where the U.S. refusal to abide by international rulings that its tariffs are illegal has infuriated Canadians.

"As a rough approximation, one-third of Canadians are favorably predisposed to the United States, one-third are knee-jerk opposed to the U.S., and the remaining third can go either way, depending on the issues," said David Welch, an expert on U.S.-Canadian relations at the University of Toronto.

Harper, 46, treads carefully around those issues. He rarely mentions foreign policy and has crafted a campaign relentlessly focused on domestic-policy matters. If he heads the next government, though, "you would get a dramatic improvement in the tone: He would be generally friendly to the Bush administration," Welch said. "Would you see a whole lot of difference in substance? Probably not."

In his party's platform and in his campaign speeches, Harper has differed only vaguely with the Liberals on Canadian-U.S. relations. The Conservative platform calls for increasing spending on the military, for example, a move that would please the Bush administration. Yet the Liberals already have boosted military spending.

Harper has criticized the Liberal government's refusal to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq but has said Canada has no troops to spare for the occupation. Canada has 650 troops in Afghanistan and plans to boost that number to 2,000 next month.

The Conservatives have promised to cooperate with Washington on border-security issues, although that, too, is a direction already set by the Liberal government. Harper has hinted he would revisit the government's decision not to join the Americans in planning a missile-defense system, but it is unclear if he would have parliamentary support. Martin privately had wanted to join the initiative but lacked political support for the move.

On social issues, however, "there is much more common ground" between Harper and Bush than between the U.S. president and Martin, Welch said, citing their shared opposition to same-sex marriage.

Martin, 67, attempting to reverse his party's slide in the polls, is campaigning hard on social issues, warning that Harper would try to overturn Canada's approval of gay-marriage and abortion rights and to redirect its social liberalism.

Harper's agenda follows "the extreme right of the United States," the prime minister said Thursday. He seized last week on Harper's criticism of judicial activism, warning that the Conservatives would try to circumvent the courts. Helping Martin, the attorney general of Ontario, Michael Bryant, accused Harper of wanting to "Americanize our judiciary."

Harper has clung to a campaign strategy downplaying those views and painting his candidacy as a more centrist, moderate one. He has declined to discuss his views on abortion rights, for example, and ignored the increasingly strident Liberal effort to portray him as a neoconservative.

"I think what I've tried to lay out to the Canadian people is that we would take a middle-road approach," Harper told the Toronto Star. His government would focus on fiscal issues and on his pledge to transfer more powers to the provinces, he said.

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