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IS ``socialism'' really the wave of the future for Canada - at least as institutionalized by the opposition New Democratic Party? Party officials are understandably circumspect, following their success Monday in sweeping three (midterm) by-elections. ``I am satisfied'' with the results, is the way NDP leader Edward Broadbent understated what was obviously an important victory by the third-place upstarts (founded in 1961): The NDP routed the two major Canadian parties - the governing Progressive Conservative Party of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the Liberal Party.

The social democratic New Democrats, on paper at least, call for Canada's withdrawal from NATO and opposition to a US-Canadian free-trade pact. Mr. Broadbent, however, tends to moderate New Democratic ideology in his discourse, and the party has proved to be an able administrator at the provincial level.

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At the least, this week's by-elections indicate deep voter unease with Mr. Mulroney's leadership as well as with the opposition Liberals. Canadian voters tend to be pragmatic. And by-election successes are not necessarily indicative of national trends. That said, the New Democrats surely have gained Canada's attention. And, presumably, that of Canada's trade partners. Stay tuned.

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