Behind Rise of Canada's Social Democrats New Democratic Party's Success Reflects Voter Worries over Safety Net

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HEATHER KENDRICK'S moment of decision came Oct. 17 in a Vancouver, British Columbia, polling booth. A longtime conservative voter, the mother and homemaker reached out and pulled the Liberal Party lever instead.

"I just couldn't bring myself around to voting for them, and the Liberals were an alternative," she said in a phone interview.

Mrs. Kendrick's decision to turn her back on the scandal-wracked Social Credit Party - a shift mirrored thousands of times that day across British Columbia - helped split the conservative vote and swept the social democrat New Democratic Party (NDP) to power for only the second time in four decades. It was a turning point for the province, and for Canada, analysts say.

"In the year of the collapse of the communist system, we're finding here in Canada that people aren't buying {our own system of government} at all," says Leo Panitch, a political scientist at Toronto's York University. "They're saying provincial and federal governments aren't sufficiently democratic. What the NDP promises is a more dynamic government that is more open and caring."

British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario all now have NDP governments. Control of these provinces - with more than half of Canada's 26 million people - has given the party the clout both to influence the debate on constitutional reform and to push for amendments to the 1989 United States-Canada Free Trade pact. At the federal level, the party holds just 43 of 295 seats in Parliament, but it could gain seats in the next election.

Pollsters say that beyond an anti-incumbent mood, the recent NDP surge was caused by Canadians' worries about the future. 'Pessimistic mood'

"In 14 years of national polling I've never seen Canadians in such a pessimistic mood," says Donna Dasko, vice president of Toronto-based Environics Research Group, an independent national polling firm. "It's the unity question with Quebec {which may secede}, the economy, and a reaction to policies ... which people associate with high deficits and cuts to the social safety net."

Such concerns have caused a fundamental change in Canadians' thinking that is shaking politics, some observers say.

m calling it an awakening social democratic consciousness in the country," says Elaine Bernard, executive director of Harvard University's trade union program and past president of the NDP in British Columbia.

Canadians, she says, are rediscovering social democratic values largely because of job losses under the 1989 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement, and because of pressure to cut social programs - especially health care.

Canadians see their generous health-care system - which is often admired by US analysts - as a defining difference between Canada and the US.

"That's where Canadians draw the line in the sand," Ms. Dasko says. "They're determined to maintain it even if they can't expand it anymore."

And efforts to shrink the social safety net may have become a political liability for conservatives. …