TORONTO – A corruption scandal forced a vote of no-confidence Monday that toppled Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government, triggering an unusual election campaign during the Christmas holidays.
Canada's three opposition parties, which control a majority in Parliament, voted against Martin's government, claiming his Liberal Party no longer has the moral authority to lead the nation.
The loss means an election for all 308 seats in the lower House of Commons, likely on Jan. 23. Martin and his Cabinet would continue to govern until then.
Opposition leaders last week called for the no-confidence vote after Martin rejected their demands to dissolve Parliament in January and hold early elections in February. Monday's vote follows a flurry of spending announcements in Ottawa last week, with the government trying to advance its agenda ahead of its demise.
Martin is expected to dissolve the House of Commons on Tuesday and set a firm date for the elections. Under Canadian law, elections must be held on a Monday unless it falls on a holiday and the campaign period is sharply restricted.
The Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper joined with the New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties to bring down the government — prompting the first Christmas and winter campaign in mostly Christian Canada in 26 years. Recent polls have given the Liberals a slight lead over the Conservatives, with the New Democrats in third place.
The same surveys suggest the Bloc Quebecois would sweep the French-speaking province of Quebec, making a majority government unlikely no matter which party wins the most seats.
Harper would become prime minister if the Conservatives receive the most seats in Parliament. He favors tax cuts and opposed Martin's successful bill to legalize same-sex marriage throughout Canada.
Martin has had frosty relations with the White House, standing by the Liberal Party decision not to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also declined to join in Washington's continental ballistic missile shield, infuriating the Bush administration, has been called weak on terrorism, and was vocal in his opposition of high U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber.
His push to legalize gay marriage throughout Canada also raised the hackles of Republicans south of the 49th parallel, but Martin is widely respected worldwide for Canada's neutrality and open arms toward immigrants and minorities.
Canada's Conservatives, by contrast, are seen as much more receptive to improving relations with Washington, though a majority of Canadians opposed the war in Iraq and the policies of President Bush.
The opposition is banking on the public's disgust with a corruption scandal involving the misuse of funds targeted for a national unity program in Quebec.
An initial investigation absolved Martin of wrongdoing, but accused senior Liberal members of taking kickbacks and misspending tens of millions of dollars in public funds.
The government ran into peril this month when it lost the support of the New Democratic Party, whose backing earlier this year helped Martin escape a previous no-confidence motion by a single vote. New Democrat leader Jack Layton said he had not received enough assurances the Liberal Party would fight the increased use of private health care in Canada.
Martin appears prepared to take his chances with a holiday campaign and blamed his opponents for any inconvenience to the predominantly Christian electorate.
The prime minister had promised to call an election within 30 days of the release of a follow-up report on the corruption scandal. The document is expected Feb. 1, which would have meant elections in the first week of April, a time that suits Canadians better than the bitterly cold and busy holiday season.
Although no formal agreement is in place, all the parties are likely to agree to a pause in the campaign around the Christmas and New Year holidays. The campaign is expected to start Tuesday, after Parliament is dissolved.
Grace Skogstad, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said she believes Canadians will pay little attention to the election until after the New Year, so Martin's opponents are unlikely to face a backlash for forcing a holiday campaign.
"It's going to be those last three weeks after Jan. 1 that are going to matter," said Skogstad, who believes the Liberals will win another minority government. "For the Liberals, they are going to try to put all the focus on the economy, which is doing phenomenally well."
Unemployment in Canada is at a 30-year low and Canada runs a budget surplus.
Andrew Stark, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, also maintained that the campaign would not be decided until the final days. Stark, however, believed the Conservatives will win a minority government if Canadians view another Liberal and New Democrat coalition as being unaccountable with tax money.
The last time a Canadian political campaign coincided with the holiday season was in 1979, when Joe Clark's minority Conservative government was toppled just weeks before Christmas. That vote was delayed until February, however, when Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals took back Parliament.
The latest collapse comes 17 months after an election that turned a Liberal majority into a fragile minority on June 28, 2004.