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Canada's Leader 'Quits' - While Still Ahead in Polls


Slipping in polls, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien yesterday called an "early" election for June 2 rather than finish out his four-year term.

Mr. Chretien's Liberal Party enjoys broad approval and a large lead in polls over four opposition parties. But he and his strategists worried that the party's steady drop in polls since last summer could prove disastrous if they waited for an autumn election.

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Last summer, 57 percent of decided voters said they would reelect Chretien's Liberal Party. Today just 41 percent would vote the same way, according to an Angus Reid Group poll.

Even that lower level would be sufficient. It is the same percent the Liberals received when they easily won control of the government from the Progressive Conservatives in October 1993.

Still, there are trouble signs. Unemployment is at 9.3 percent, and one-third of the electorate say they are worried about job security, polls show. Pollsters say Liberal support is broad, but also relatively "thin" and could drop quickly if the current economic boom doesn't create many more jobs.

"He's done well cutting the deficit and managing the economy," says Darrell Bricker, senior vice president at Angus Reid in Ottawa. "But there is weakness on the jobs issue."

Hugh Thorburn, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, agrees with Mr. Bricker. "It's quite clear the government is in a strong position now, and all the polls indicate they're sure to win," he says. "A year from now, the economic prospects are not quite so good.... What this government wants is a fresh four years to deal with Quebec [secessionists] and anything else that turns up. It is exactly the same strategy being followed by [President Jacques] Chirac in France," who also called early elections last week.

Chretien has several things going for him. First, he has adopted a low profile with the news media and a low-visibility approach to governing. Both approaches are favored by Canadians.

Chretien has also avoided pitfalls that tripped up his predecessor, Brian Mulroney, by keeping a safe distance from the United States on cultural and foreign policies. He has avoided appearing to be a US "toady" and won points by insisting Canada be allowed to trade freely with Cuba, despite US objections.

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For a while it appeared that Chretien, who ran on a platform of personal honesty and pledged to restore public confidence in government, might actually do just that. No major scandals erupted and his "honeymoon" lasted until December when Chretien stumbled. In a televised town hall meeting, he told a woman questioner he had never promised in the 1993 campaign to eliminate Canada's much-hated tax on goods and services, the GST.

But that was not how millions of Canadians remembered it. After the program, Chretien's approval rating slid. Other missteps followed, including the postponing of an investigation into the Canadian military's misbehavior in Somalia in 1993.

Chretien appears content to run on his management of the economy and spending cuts. Already, red Liberal flyers are appearing in newspapers touting a drop in the federal deficit from C$42 billion ($31 billion) in 1993 to C$17 billion in 1997-98.

That strong performance leaves Chretien's opponents scratching for a chink in the Liberal armor. Progressive Conservative Jean Charest is the second-most-popular leader in the country with 18 percent support. But he operates in the shadow of the still highly unpopular Mulroney.

Many blame Chretien for nearly "losing the country" when Quebec's Parti Quebecois government held a referendum on separating from Canada on Oct. 30, 1995, and lost by only 40,000 votes - less than 1 percent of the vote.

Quebec succession may be dragged into the campaign by the Bloc Quebeois or Preston Manning's western-based Reform Party. Mr. Manning says Chretien was not tough enough on Quebec and so encouraged secessionist sentiment, endangering the country.

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