Canada's Conservative prime minister and his Liberal rival crisscrossed the country Monday in a final day of campaigning, with voters concerned the ruling party is out of touch but also that the opposition's leader has trouble communicating in English.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has had a tenuous hold on power since the 2006 election and is forced to rely on the opposition to pass legislation, called today's vote in hopes of winning the 155 seats needed for a majority in the 308-seat Parliament.
But Harper, the first G-7 leader to face election since the global credit crisis worsened, has been hurt by his slow reaction to the market meltdown, and that – among other missteps – may have cost him his bid for the majority.
Opponents are painting Harper as a right-winger who would reshape the landscape.
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“Just because someone's a Conservative doesn't mean he's George Bush,” Harper told voters in Quebec on Saturday.
Harper's rival, Liberal leader Stephane Dion, urged the divided left to vote for his party and dismissed talk he would step down as party leader if he loses.
Dion is a former professor from the French-speaking province of Quebec whose struggles to communicate in English have become an issue. Dion's English is heavily accented and awkward. He stumbles over words during speeches and his grammar is often mangled.
Polls at the start of the campaign had Harper winning a majority, but Harper hurt himself when he said during a debate that Canadians were not concerned about their jobs or mortgages. Days later, he said stocks were cheap.
Canada's main stock exchange then had its worst week in almost 70 years.
Harper has since tried to undue the damage by saying he knows Canadians are worried. He contrasted Canada's economic and fiscal performance to the more dire situation in the U.S.
“Americans are running deficits. We're running surpluses. Americans are incurring debt. We're paying down debt,” Harper said.
Analysts said Harper wanted the election before the economy got worse and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, which could put a Democrat in the White House and encourage Canadians to choose a more liberal government.
The opposition Liberals have traditionally been the party in power in Canada, forming the government for more than two-thirds of the last 100 years.
Dion has moved the party to the crowded left by staking his leadership on a “Green Shift” tax plan. Dion, a former environment minister who named his dog Kyoto after the Japanese site of the first climate change accord, wants to introduce a carbon tax on all fossil fuels except gasoline.
Dion has had little success selling the plan to Canadians, many of whom view him as a weak leader.