January 24, 2006

Canadians elect weak Conservative government

By Janet Guttsman and David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadians elected their first
Conservative government in 12 years, but gave the party a
far-from-decisive mandate to push through its agenda of tax
cuts, extra military spending and better ties with Washington.

The Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, will have 124
seats in the Canadian Parliament, 30 below the 155 needed to
form a majority. But they will still be 21 seats ahead of the
ruling Liberals, who came across as tired, jaded and out of
ideas in a two-month election race.

"Each and every day I will assure you of one thing -- I
will dedicate myself to making Canada more united, stronger,
more prosperous and a safer country," Harper told an ecstatic
crowd in the western Canadian city of Calgary.

The result was a major triumph for Harper, a 46-year-old
economist who created the Conservatives in late 2003 by pushing
through the merger of two squabbling right-wing parties. He
will be the first prime minister from the oil-rich western
province of Alberta for 25 years.

Opinion polls had pointed to a Conservative minority. But
the number of Conservative seats was somewhat below forecasts,
pointing to an unstable government unlikely to last for long.

Minority governments in Canada rarely last longer than 18
months. The outgoing minority Liberal government stayed in
power for 17 months before it was defeated in November 2005
over a kickback scandal.

Unlike the Liberals, who governed with the help of the
left-leaning New Democrats, the Conservatives have no natural
allies in a four-party Canadian Parliament and will need to
seek support from political rivals on an issue-by-issue basis.

Harper pledged to work with other parties to push through
his agenda, which includes a cut in consumption taxes and a
balanced budget.

The defeat was a humiliating blow for outgoing Prime
Minister Paul Martin, who inherited a large majority when he
took over in December 2003 only to see support fade as scandals
swirled. He said he would not lead the Liberals into the next

"I have just called Stephen Harper and I have offered him
my congratulations," Martin told supporters. "The people of
Canada have chosen him to lead a minority government."

The Liberals, long viewed as Canada's natural governing
party, slumped in the polls after police said in late December
they were probing whether someone in the finance minister's
office leaked information about proposed tax changes.

"Canadians voted for hope over fear and accountability over
corruption," senior Conservative Jason Kenney said.

The Conservatives won 36.3 percent of the popular vote and
the Liberals won 30.2 percent, their second worst showing since
Canada gained independence in 1867.

Harper also vows to clamp down on crime, cut waiting times
for health care and improve strained relations with the United
States, with whom Canada has a number of trade disputes.

He says he will allow a free vote in Parliament about
whether Canada should repeal laws that allow gay marriage.

The Conservatives also put in a strong showing in Quebec,
pushing the separatist Bloc Quebecois below the key 50 percent
mark and cutting the odds of a new vote on breaking up Canada.

Quebec voted against separation by just under 51 percent in
a 1995 referendum. An earlier referendum, in 1980, also
resulted in a victory for the pro-Canada camp.

The New Democrats won 29 seats -- their best showing since
1988. There will be one independent, a Quebec talk show host
who made a career out of lambasting politicians and railing
against what he calls the Ottawa establishment.

(With additional reporting by Robert Melnbardis, Rachelle
Younglai, Randall Palmer, Gilbert Le Gras, Cameron French and
Jeffrey Jones)