CANADA'S Liberal Party scored a huge victory in national elections Oct. 25, using the rhetoric of jobs, change, and voter anger. Is there a political echo in North America? We almost thought we heard Liberal leader Jean Chretien, Canada's next prime minister, say something like ``it's the economy, eh?''
In Canadian terms, the elections were stunning. They could, unusually, affect matters in the United States, since Mr. Chretien has said he wants to ``open up'' the question of NAFTA. Liberals will have a majority government for the first time since Pierre Trudeau won in 1968. This is a happier outcome, since a minority government could be a recipe for gridlock. The vote was less an affirmation of Chretien's party, however, as an enormous rejection of the Conservatives and the double digit unemployment that is a legacy of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Canadians didn't buy the Conservative strategy of blaming Mulroney and running Canada's first woman prime minister, Kim Campbell. After Oct. 25 Conservatives are totally marginalized.
But Canadians also voted Liberal to check two parties that emerged from nowhere: Bloc Qucois and the Reform Party. The former is a Francophone secessionist party whose base is wholly in Quebec. Oddly, Bloc Qucois becomes the official opposition party in parliament and a constant reminder of the country's regional and cultural schisms.
The Reform Party has come on as a new populist conservative force out of the Canadian western regions. The hard-edged criticism of federal policies by Reform's leader Preston Manning, a Protestant evangelical, will likely be for Chretien and the Liberals what Ross Perot's sniping is for Bill Clinton and the Democrats.
These new parties suggest a deeper frustration in Canada and a casting about for new identities. Having spent the last four years under Mulroney trying to create a new federal constitution - only to have it fail last October - there is an exhaustion with politics. The Liberals must try to unify Canada via economic initiatives. But NAFTA should be debated on merit, not become an outlet for frustrations.