OTTAWA – Conservative Stephen Harper pledged to quickly carry out his campaign promises to cut taxes, get tough on crime and repair strained ties with Washington after his party won national elections and ended more than 12 years of Liberal Party rule in Canada.
That may be easier said than done.
The Conservatives' winning margin was too narrow to rule with a majority, a situation that will make it hard for them to get legislation through the divided House of Commons.
Monday's vote showed that Canadians are weary of the Liberal Party's broken promises and corruption scandals. They were willing to give Harper a chance to govern despite concerns that some of his social views are extreme.
"Tonight friends, our great country has voted for change, and Canadians have asked our party to take the lead in delivering that change," Harper told 2,000 cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters in Calgary.
He said his new government — not likely to be sworn in for several weeks — would immediately move to cut the unpopular national sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent, "reform the justice system to fight against crime and gangs," and begin to allocate $1,042 to Canadian families for each child they have needing daycare.
He also wants to introduce a federal accountability act that will monitor government spending in an effort to avoid the corruption scandals that have plagued the Liberals.
"We will do this because shuffling the deck in Ottawa is not good enough," he said. "We need to do this to make the system more accountable to you, the Canadian taxpayers."
Relations with the Bush administration will likely improve under Harper as his ideology runs along the same lines of many U.S. Republicans.
Harper has said he would reconsider a U.S. missile defense scheme rejected by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin. He also said he wanted to move beyond the Kyoto debate by establishing different environmental controls, spend more on the Canadian military, expand its peacekeeping missions and tighten security along the U.S. border to prevent terrorists and guns from crossing.
Final results for the 308-seat House showed Conservatives with 124 seats; Liberals with 103; the Bloc Quebecois with 51, New Democratic Party with 29; and one seat to an Independent.
The Conservatives also earned 10 seats in Quebec, where they were virtually shut out in the last elections of June 2004. Harper said it was symbolic of the Quebecois desire for national unity as opposed to sovereignty for the French-speaking province.
"Our government will build a new and dynamic voice for federalism in Quebec," Harper said.
Martin conceded defeat and said he would step down as head of the party, although remain in Parliament to represent the Montreal seat he won again. It was an unusual move to do both on the same night, but Martin appeared upbeat and eager to continue to fight the Conservatives from House opposition benches.
"I have just called Stephen Harper and I've offered him my congratulations," Martin told a subdued crowd at his headquarters in Montreal. "We differ on many things, but we all share a believe in the potential and the progress of Canada."
The Conservative victory ended more than a decade of Liberal Party rule and could shift the traditionally liberal country to the right on socio-economic issues such as health care, taxation, abortion and gay marriage. Some Canadians have expressed reservations about Harper's views opposing abortion and marriages between gays and lesbians.
During the campaign, Harper pledged to cut the red tape in social welfare programs, lower the national sales tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over five years and grant more autonomy and federal funding to Canada's 13 provinces and territories.
The Liberals have angered Washington in recent years, condemning the war in Iraq, refusing to join the continental anti-ballistic missile plan and criticizing President Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions and enacting punitive Canadian lumber tariffs.
Martin, 67, had trumpeted eight consecutive budget surpluses and sought to paint Harper as a right-winger posing as a moderate to woo mainstream voters. He claimed Harper supports the war in Iraq, which most Canadians oppose, and would try to outlaw abortion and overturn gay marriage. Harper denied the accusations.
Voters cast ballots at 60,000 polling stations amid unseasonably mild winter weather. Turnout from the 22.7 million registered voters was 65 percent, somewhat better than the 60 percent of the June 2004 election, the lowest number since 1898.
Martin's government and the House were dissolved in November after New Democrats defected from the governing coalition to support the Conservatives in a no-confidence vote amid a corruption scandal involving the misuse of funds for a national unity program in Quebec.
An investigation absolved the prime minister of wrongdoing but accused senior Liberals of taking kickbacks and misspending tens of millions of dollars in public funds.
Just as campaigning hit full swing over the Christmas holidays, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced they were investigating a possible leak by Liberal government officials that appeared to have influenced the stock market.