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Not Exactly an Earthquake, But Canada's Politics Jolted

June 2 election results in a parliament split by regions, with only one truly national party left.

Do Canadians want a "caring" government with lavish social programs or a tightwad deficit slasher? Should it send hearts and flowers to Quebec or outline harsh consequences if the province secedes?

Canada's election left these and other big questions facing the country unanswered. Instead, voters sliced up Parliament along stark regional lines, continuing this nation's historic transition away from a system of two broad national parties and toward a more volatile, fragmented future.

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The June 2 vote confirmed 1993's election verdict that there is only one truly national party in Canada - the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Jean Chrtien.

"This is a transitional election," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "Right now the pattern of Canadian politics is to have the Liberals forming a government and everyone else sniping at them."

The Liberal win was overshadowed by the narrow margin of its majority - 155 seats (151 were needed), compared with the 177 it won in 1993. The party won big in Ontario and gained a bit in Quebec, but lost ground everywhere else.

Those lost seats fell to the Reform Party in the West, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in prairie and Atlantic provinces, and the Progressive Conservatives (PC) in the East.

So like a city block of squabbling neighbors, Canada's Parliament will ring with a cacophony of voices this fall. For the first time Parliament will include five parties with official status, says Reg Whitaker, a York University political scientist.

"The key question is whether any of these opposition parties can emerge in the coming years as an alternative to the Liberals," he says.

Reform says it can in the next election. In this round it accomplished its goal of becoming the "official opposition" in Parliament by capturing 60 seats, ousting the Bloc Quebecois separatists as the No. 2 party. The BQ, led by Gilles Duceppe, ran a dismal campaign, but recovered to maintain a 44-seat presence, down from 54 in 1993.

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Jean Charest had hoped his PCs would be an alternative, too. But his high hopes of reviving Canada's oldest political party seem dashed. Even though the party bounced back from two seats to win 20 seats, analysts point out it is confined to Atlantic Canada and five seats in Quebec.

Several trends should emerge with the slate of stronger parties, a weaker government, and Reform as official opposition:

National Unity. Reform says Quebec is just another province and must have a "Plan B" so that Quebeckers fully understand the harsh consequences of separating from Canada. With Reform pounding away, the government could be forced to strengthen its own plans to deal with the separatists.

Separatist sentiments could rise in Quebec. Or "soft nationalists" could be pushed more firmly into the federalist fold. With Reform as opposition, and BQ weakened, Bliss says the next referendum on secession won't come next year, as many think, but after 2000 - if at all.

More social spending. The NDP, with its 21 seats, was the surprise of the election. Given the endorsement of stringent fiscal policies across Canada, most analysts did not think the NDP could win many votes on a platform of spending on social programs. Its rise is a backlash against conservative fiscal policies, analysts say, but not nearly as big a backlash as in the election in France. Liberal policies could be influenced by the NDP and a need to satisfy the "kinder, gentler" members of its own party.

Leadership. Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political analyst, says the long-term significance of the election is that it may result in leadership changes. "The big issue will be what happens to the leaders," he says. "Will Jean Charest remain leader of PCs or look for new opportunities?"

Another possible change could involve Mr. Chrtien himself. He will undoubtedly be criticized within the party for calling an early election that saw the Liberals beaten back to their Ontario bastion. Many also blame him for apparent inaction in almost "losing the country" during the 1995 referendum on Quebec secession.

Chrtien is still highly unpopular in Quebec. So, the thinking goes, if another unity crisis emerges, he might be forced to step aside.

"This will be Chrtien's second and final term," Bliss says. "Next year we will have a new Liberal prime minister.... And the right will still be divided."

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