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Ottawa's distance from Washington
The Japan Times: Feb. 14, 2006
A new administration led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, which won the general election Jan. 23, has been inaugurated in Canada. The Conservatives have not held the reins of government since November 1993.
In Canada, where progressives had continued to rule through the Liberal Party, attention now is focused on what kind of conservative politics this 46-year-old prime minister will develop. During the election campaign Mr. Harper was criticized by his opponents as a neoconservative leaning toward Washington.
Political analysts attribute his victory partly to voters' weariness of the perceived "injustice" that had crept into the long-term administration of the Liberal Party, which had been promoting structural reforms. On any well-intended reform agenda, changes tend to bring not only gains but pain. As a result, reigning for a long period does not always work to the advantage of such a party come election time.
The situation is rather similar to Americans' turning against the so-called vested interests of big government and voting, in 1980, for the late President Ronald Reagan, who was criticized for being too far to the right.
Born in the eastern city of Toronto, Mr. Harper became a conservative after he moved to the western province of Alberta. Like Bush, he is an enthusiastic Protestant evangelical. The composition of the new prime minister's political base in Alberta is very similar to that of the western part of the United States. Mr. Harper fought the election under the slogan of a "strong Canada."
The similarities with U.S. President George W. Bush are striking. Mr. Bush was born in the eastern state of Connecticut but built his base out West, in Texas, after he moved there with his father.
In Canada's general election, the Conservative Party did not gain seats in the major eastern cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, or in large cities on the Pacific coast, but won much support in smaller cities and rural districts.
Similarly, the Republican Party in the United States lost in New York and the large cities of California but won the election on the strength of its base in the South and West.
Mr. Harper is positive about participating in Washington's missile-defense plans, which the Liberal Party administration had rejected, and is critical of terms in the Kyoto Protocol aimed at slowing global warming. He is also thinking of abolishing a law that recognizes same-sex marriage.
It would seem, therefore, that Mr. Harper and Mr. Bush are like two peas in a pod. Indeed, Mr. Bush reportedly was delighted by the Canadian election result and phoned Mr. Harper to congratulate him. This was in stark contrast to the sentiments expressed by the previous Liberal prime minister, who rejected the dispatch of Canadian troops to the Iraq war and criticized the Bush administration in general.
However, it seems unlikely that relations between Canada and the U.S. will change as much as Mr. Bush hopes. For one thing, the Conservative Party, while making spectacular gains in the election, fell short of winning a majority. Thus forced to maneuver as a minority ruling party, it will have to compromise with the Liberals and other parties in order to implement its policies.
Mr. Harper has already demonstrated an ability to flexibly adjust his positions to reality. Learning lessons from the 2004 election in which the progressives criticized him for rightist views, Mr. Harper has steered the right-leaning Conservatives toward the center. Since the election victory last month, he has subtly revised some statements he made during the campaign.
Despite the similarities with Mr. Bush, Mr. Harper is being likened in Canada to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who overhauled a Labor Party that had been unable for a long time to take control of the government.
The slogan of "strong Canada" suggests that Mr. Harper will not simply kowtow to Washington. Indeed, he has responded firmly, for example, to the territorial question involving waters of the Arctic.
For Canada, which shares a border with the superpower to the south, dealing with the distance between Ottawa and Washington is a matter that concerns its very raison d'etre. The world is watching to see whether Mr. Harper can govern Canada without being pressured into doing the bidding of the United States, which is led by a president with the same conservative background and similar beliefs. It is not an issue to which Japan can be indifferent, either.