May 2, 2011 / 8:01 PM / in 7 years

Canada PM Harper ahead in polls but sands shifting

STRATFORD, Prince Edward Island (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cruised through most of the Canadian election campaign as the front-runner, only to find himself in uncharted political territory on voting day.

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits the students of St. Augustine Elementary School after he voted in his riding in Calgary, Alberta, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Todd Korol</p>

Few doubt Harper’s Conservatives will win the most seats in Parliament Monday, but his goal of securing a majority government appears just as elusive this time as it was in the 2006 and 2008 elections that gave him minority governments.

Harper, who turned 52 during the campaign and is an economist by training, is now the third-longest serving Conservative prime minister since World War Two.

He maintains strict control over his government to try to avoid negative press, and he is known to have an aloof public personality. His five-week campaign tour around Canada seemed a reflection of this. The Conservative campaign allowed only limited media access and audience members had to register in advance to attend rallies.

A Reuters reporter who wandered into a crowd to hear what people were saying at one rally was told by Conservative staffer that that was not permitted. One university student was barred from a rally because her Facebook page showed a picture of her posing with Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff.

The question for Conservatives at the end of the campaign is whether the strategy of protecting Harper’s front-runner status and bashing the party’s traditional foes, the Liberals, can survive the surprise rise in the polls of the usually also-ran New Democratic Party as a serious election foe. The left-of-center NDP looks set to replace the Liberals in second place and may even surge enough to try to form a government with Liberal support.


Harper has an instinctive distrust of big government and red ink, and during the 2008 election campaign he scoffed at the idea of a big crash or recession.

But he turned with other world leaders to Keynesian economics to dig out of the recession, running the biggest budget deficit, in absolute dollar terms, in Canadian history.

Harper cut his political teeth in the Western province of Alberta, which long felt excluded from the traditional power centers in the East. He rose to prominence in the 1990s as a legislator for the right-of-center Reform Party, which campaigned under the slogan “The West wants in.”

Harper quickly became frustrated and returned to Alberta, where he urged that the province erect a firewall to prevent interference from the federal government. In 1997, he said Canada was a “welfare state in the worst sense of the term.”

Yet he was soon back on the national stage, winning the leadership of the Canadian Alliance -- the successor to Reform -- in 2002 and then pushing through a merger with the Progressive Conservatives to form the new Conservative Party.

Largely thanks to that merger, the Conservatives took power in 2006, when the forces on the center-left were divided. They remain divided.

Harper is married with two young children and is writing a book about ice hockey, Canada’s passion and its national winter sport. His wife Laureen, once a keen motorcycle rider, generally keeps a low profile. Between campaign events, photographers noted she appeared unhappy to be on the tour.

Harper’s aloofness may have cost him in the campaign in comparison with New Democratic leader Jack Layton, whose more outgoing, friendly personality helped fuel his party’s mid-campaign surge in the polls, said Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria.

It protected the Conservative’s lead, but “they needed a break-out,” Pilon said.

Scott Matthews, of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said Harper will face questions if he fails to get the majority government he set as his goal through the campaign.

“If you set majority as a target and don’t get it... Well, it’s a bit awkward,” he said.

With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Peter Galloway

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