Conservative Canadian Leader Seeks Another Mandate Harper Rolls Dice with Early Campaign for Oct. 19 Election

By Cohen, Andrew | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Conservative Canadian Leader Seeks Another Mandate Harper Rolls Dice with Early Campaign for Oct. 19 Election


Cohen, Andrew, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


OTTAWA - It was not a complete surprise when Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a national election early this month for Oct. 19, launching the longest campaign in Canada since 1872. Not really.

While many observers thought that he would wait until Labor Day to announce his bid for a fourth consecutive mandate, Mr. Harper couldn't resist the financial and political advantage of a campaign twice the usual length. More than anything, he is a master strategist, which is why he has been prime minister for 9 years. It makes him among the longest-serving leaders in the industrialized world.

And so, when he asked the vice-regal envoy to dissolve Parliament on Aug. 2, it did not matter to him that he had broken convention or used the rules to his advantage. As always, he was doing what he had to do to re-elect the Conservative Party.

It will not be easy. The Conservatives have governed the world's second-largest country and one of its largest economies since Feb. 6, 2006. Their popularity hovers today around 30 percent - well below the 39 percent that won them 166 seats in Parliament on May 2, 2011. That was the first time in four elections they had won a majority government, allowing them to govern without fear of being defeated in Parliament. They now want to keep it.

Like all aging governments - think of a president midway through a third term - this one is tired. Senior cabinet ministers have died or departed. There are no stars in the weakest cabinet in memory. Mr. Harper is a one-man show.

Making matters worse, the economy has been devastated by the collapse of oil and other commodities, on which Canada's resource economy depends. The Canadian dollar has lost almost a third of its value against the U.S. dollar since 2012.

After five straight months without growth, economists suggest the country is technically in recession. Unemployment is at 6.8 percent, higher than in the U.S. In response to the sluggish economy, the central bank has cut interest rates twice this year. The federal budget, which reported a narrow surplus in March for the first time since 2008, threatens to go back into deficit next year. A recession undermines the government's boast - and the party's brand - of sound economic management.

The government is under attack on other fronts. It has lost a string of important decisions in the Supreme Court of Canada, overturning legislation and rescinding a judicial appointment. A prominent Conservative senator is on trial for corruption; he and others under investigation were appointed by Mr. Harper.

The narrative on this government is that it is secretive (Mr. Harper ignores the media); authoritarian (Mr. Harper shut down Parliament in 2008 rather than face a vote of non-confidence he was sure to lose); and defiant (Mr. Harper denounced the chief justice of the Supreme Court, which is unprecedented, as well as officers of government agencies and Parliament).

At 56, Mr. Harper is less liked than respected. His opponents call him dour, disloyal and dictatorial. In his newly published biography of the prime minister, journalist John Ibbitson calls him "the most introverted man ever to seek high office in this country." He describes Mr. Harper's explosive temper, his boiling resentment, his relentless partisanship.

At the same time, Mr. Ibbitson says he has made what was once a moderate country more conservative, with smaller government, lower taxes, less friction between regions and a louder voice in the world. …

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