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Canada - Politics

In Canada's political system, a key challenge for any federal government is balancing the conflicting interests of Canada's 10 provinces and 3 territories. Quebec, which represents 23% of the national population, seeks to preserve its distinctive francophone nature, and is perceived by the less-populous western provinces as wielding undue influence on the country. The western provinces don't believe their interests are given enough attention in Ottawa; industrialized central Canada is chiefly concerned with economic development; and the Atlantic provinces resist federal claims to fishing and mineral rights off their shores. The government, which had been under Liberal control since 1993, ceded some spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction, while strengthening the federal role in areas such as inter-provincial trade. Decreased federal support to the provinces for health care services was a major point of contention between provincial leaders and the Chretien and Martin governments.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal Party won a major victory in the November 2000 general elections. Chretien became the first Prime Minister to lead three consecutive majority governments since 1945, as the Liberals increased their majority in Parliament to 57% (172 of the 301 Parliamentary seats). The Canadian Alliance Party, which did well in western Canada but was unable to make significant inroads in the East, won the second-highest total of seats (66).

Federal-provincial interplay was a central feature of Canadian politics. The Chretien government responded to these different regional needs by seeking to rebalance the Canadian confederation, giving up its spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction, while attempting to strengthen the federal role in other areas. The federal government has reached agreement with a number of provinces returning to them authority over job training programs and embarked on similar initiatives in other fields. Meanwhile, it attempted to strengthen the national role on interprovincial trade, while also seeking national regulation of securities.

On December 12, 2003, Paul Martin became Canada's Prime Minister, succeeding Jean Chretien. Martin, leader of the Liberal Party, has broad prior governmental experience, including service as Finance Minister. It was widely expected that he would call elections in Spring 2004 and that the Liberals would retain a majority in Parliament. At the same time, the merger between the Progressive Conservative party ("red" Tories) and the western-based conservative Canadian Alliance, into the "Conservative Party of Canada," was expected to offer a more coherent opposition in the expected 2004 election.

In the June 28, 2004 elections the Liberal Party received a fourth consecutive mandate to govern, although they only earned a plurality (135 of 308) of the seats in parliament. The remainder of the seats were split among three other parties and one Independent M.P. The newly formed Conservative Party of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, won 99 seats -- some 21 more than the combined total in the last election of its two predecessor parties, the western-based conservative Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative party. The pro-sovereignty Bloc Quebecois won 54 seats, up from the 33 held at adjournment of parliament. The Bloc's gains at the expense of the Liberals are broadly attributed to fallout from a Chretien-era "sponsorship scandal" involving misuse of funds to promote the federal government's image in Quebec. Finally, the left-of-center New Democratic Party increased its holdings from 14 to 19 seats.

Though the new government was considered to be relatively stable, expectations were that it will not last more than 18 to 24 months. As a minority government, the Liberals advanced their agenda on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than creating a majority through a formal alliance with another party. Prime Minister Martin's Liberals began the 38th parliament in the fall of 2004 with a modest agenda and hopes for relative stability, but the public inquiry into the "sponsorship scandal" undermined support for the Liberal Party, particularly in Quebec, and the Conservatives saw a chance in the spring of 2005 to topple the government through a no-confidence vote. The vote was narrowly defeated but Prime Minister Martin indicated an election is likely to be called after the report on the inquiry is released, probably in the early spring of 2006. The Prime Minister may call another election at his discretion or be forced to do so if his government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons.

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