That was the year Jean Chretien led the Liberal Party in an election that gave it 177 of the 295 seats in the federal Parliament. And it was the election that reduced the once-mighty Progressive Conservative Party to just two seats.
The Tories never have recovered from that defeat.
That election left the opposition splintered with no other truly national party to be an effective opposition. Indeed, the Bloc Quebecois claimed the office of official opposition with its 54 seats in Ottawa but all those seats were held by members from Quebec and represented a party dedicated to separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada.
The newly formed Reform Party won 52 seats but nearly all of those were held by members from western provinces. The New Democratic Party had only nine seats.
Those splinter parties gained some seats in two subsequent federal elections but never enough to deny the Liberals a majority. The Reform Party's leader, Preston Manning, left politics and the party decided to seek a new image as the Canadian Alliance, hoping to attract members from the remnant Conservative Party. Instead, the Alliance was split between moderate and extreme conservatives. Some members bolted to the Conservatives. But when the Alliance chose yet another leader, they snuck back to the fold.
The leader of the hapless Conservatives was Joe Clark, who had been prime minister for just eight months in 1979-80. He struggled to rebuild the party but had little success. He wanted to bring the old Reform-Alliance members back into his fold. In mid-April, he made what appears to have been a final effort at reconciliation. He met with the Alliance's newest leader, Stephen Harper, for extended talks about resolving the split of the conservatives. The talks ended in failure. The Alliance, which won 66 seats in the 2000 elections, remains the largest of the splinter parties, but not really a national party because of its regional membership in the west.
The Conservatives will hold their convention in August and the Clark leadership will be under review. No strong opponent to Clark has surfaced thus far. Who wants to be the leader of a political party with a glorious history but uncertain future?
So Chretien and his Liberals seem secure in their control of the government. But criticism of Chretien has been growing. Finance Minister Paul Martin is reported to have been building a following, which may finally succeed in propelling him into the party leadership and so the prime minister's office. His supporters hope that will give Canada the strong, decisive leadership it seems to have lacked for the last decade.
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