Harper surge boosts federalists in Quebec

Élections 2006

Conservative leader Stephen Harper will be the leader to beat in English and in French in next week's televised election debates.
The most remarkable feature of the post-Christmas Conservative surge is that it poses an equal threat to the vital interests of Paul Martin, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe.
The Liberal leader is, of course, at risk of losing his party's place in power and by the same token his own place in history.
At this point, the ghost of former Ontario premier Mike Harris may be all that is standing between Harper and Martin's prime ministerial job.
It is no accident that since the New Year, Harris's name has been on the lips of the Liberal leader and his spin doctors nearly every day.
As this long campaign enters the final stretch, Ontario has emerged as the place where Prime Minister Martin has to hold his ground if he is to hang onto power.
Fears of the advent of a federal version of the 1995 Progressive Conservative Common Sense Revolution may offer the Liberals the best, last hope to keep Harper at bay.
By the same token, Jack Layton's New Democrat Party is in mortal danger of being pushed back into parliamentary irrelevance.
The surge in Conservative support threatens to quash New Democrat hopes for gains in the Prairies and in British Columbia.
And Ontario, where the party's numbers are promising, also happens to feature the softest political ground on offer in this campaign.
If there is one group of voters who could be spooked by recurrent Liberal evocations of Harris-style conservatism, it is Ontario's NDP sympathizers.
That same fear propelled many of them into Dalton McGuinty's fold in the past two provincial elections.
There were signs this week that Layton was at a loss about how to extricate himself from this predicament.
In his attempts to fight back against the Conservatives, the NDP leader opened his Ontario flank to the Liberals.
Just before Christmas, Layton was hammering home the message that a vote for the Liberals amounted to a vote against national unity.
But this week it is the possibility of a minority Conservative government at the potential mercy of the Bloc QuŽbŽcois that Layton is calling a threat to Canada.
That assertion Ñ coming from the federalist leader who is making the least impression in Quebec in this campaign Ñ may well amount to doing Liberal work at NDP expense in Ontario.
It also ignores the fact that the Conservatives are emerging as a force the Bloc suddenly has to reckon with.
At this stage in the election campaign, many Conservative strategists would probably trade their party's sustantial gains in Quebec for points in Ontario.
Harper starts from so far behind in Quebec that even a double digit rise in support is unlikely to yield more than a couple of Conservative seats on voting day.
But in the greater scheme of things, his success in Quebec is one of the most significant developments of the campaign.
If Harper can sustain his Quebec momentum the Bloc's mythical goal of winning more than 50 per cent of the popular vote on Jan. 23 will remain out of reach.
And while Duceppe will likely still win the election war in Quebec, that means he stands to lose a crucial psychological battle.
With a single speech promising little more than an open discussion of a federalism more respectful of the provinces'constitutional jurisdictions and of Quebecers' cultural differences, Harper has put the Conservatives back on the map in the province.
In so doing, he has shown that the desire for a made-in-Canada answer to their aspirations is still strong among Quebecers Ñ too strong to presume, as do so many sovereignists, that a referendum victory is just around the corner of the next Quebec election.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this campaign, the emergence of an alternative federalist voice in Quebec is a positive development for Canada.
It would be a pity if that got lost in the partisan federalist crossfire of the next two weeks.

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