January 23, 2006

Canada’s Conservatives win election: TV networks

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's opposition Conservatives were heading for a narrow victory in Monday's national election, ending 12 years of Liberal rule, major television networks said.

All four channels predicted the Conservatives of Stephen Harper would win but preliminary data showed he would fall well short of a 155-seat majority in the 308-member Parliament.

Preliminary results showed the Conservatives winning or ahead in 115 electoral districts compared to 96 for the ruling Liberals. They were in line with polls in the last three weeks of the campaign which consistently showed the Conservatives were set to win a fragile mandate.

The result was a personal triumph for Harper, who forced through the creation of the Conservatives in December 2003 by uniting two squabbling right-wing movements.

"It shows that Canadians were looking for change," deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay told CTV.

When asked how long it would take to form a cabinet he replied: "We'll want to get at it right away."

Support for the Liberals had slipped amid voter fatigue and a major kickback scandal which brought down the minority government of Prime Minister Paul Martin in November.

Martin had tried hard to convince Canadians that Harper was an extremist who would try to strip away personal freedoms such as gay marriage and abortion.

The Conservatives have no natural allies in Parliament and will therefore have to govern on an issue-by-issue basis.

"Minority means we have to be constructive, and we have to be working together and finding common ground. We worked hard and we've kept away from some of the nastiness that we've seen in other elections," MacKay said.

Analysts believe a minority Harper government would likely last between a year and 18 months.

Early data showed the Conservatives won nine of the 32 seats in the four Atlantic provinces -- a gain of two -- while the Liberals slipped two to 20.

But they made significant gains in the powerful central province of Ontario, which accounts for 106 of the 308 seats in Parliament.

Preliminary data showed the Conservatives had also made some gains in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where only a few weeks ago the separatist Bloc Quebecois had expected to win almost all of the 75 seats.

The left-leaning New Democrats were winning or leading in 23 districts, a slight improvement on their performance in the June 2004 election.

In his campaign Harper vowed to clean up government, cut the national sales tax, clamp down on crime and cut waiting times for health care. He said Martin had not given voters a compelling reason to hand the Liberals, who took power in late 1993, a fifth successive mandate.

Martin fought mainly on his record, particularly an economy running both a healthy budget and trade surpluses.

As the Liberals slipped in the polls, Martin stepped up his attacks on Harper, saying he would leave the weak behind, curb abortion and let Washington determine Canadian foreign policy.

At the dissolution of the old Parliament in November, the Liberals had 133 seats and the Conservatives 98.