Harper is hoping voters will give the Conservatives a second consecutive win since the 2006 elections [AP]

With a fall election becoming increasingly likely, Canadians will be asked to choose between conservative and progressive visions for their country much like their American neighbours.

And, while John McCain and Barack Obama, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, respectively, are outsiders in Canada, it is their epic contest that is influencing the timing of elections in Ottawa.

In 2006, Canada's parliament designated fixed polling dates based on the US model with October 2009 scheduled as the next election day.

But that was before the onset of the US presidential elections season and the dawn of Obama-mania, a phenomenon that is as obvious in Canada as it is in America itself. Would-be Obama voters in Canada are said to outnumber McCain backers three to one – effectively, a non-contest.

Canadians have rarely taken their electoral cues from the US presidential campaigns staged every four years, but this year may be different.

Several commentators have speculated that one of the reasons why Canadians will be asked to cast ballots in a federal election this fall is the spill-over effect that a probable Obama victory will have on Liberal Party fortunes in Canada.

The bounce may be as high as three per cent, enough some say to propel Canada's "natural governing party" back into power.

American influence

Harper is seen as a stalwart Bush ally

There is also a second America-induced trend that has Canadians worried. The flagging US economy is beginning to wash over Canada, which may now be on the brink of a recession.

This is bad news for any government, especially one that has prided itself on having a steady hand on the tiller.

Rather than wait for Obama-mania and a recession to swamp voters, the Conservative government wants to get ahead of events and hopefully win itself a new mandate well before either of these becomes an inevitability.

Latest indications are that the gamble may be paying off for the government of Stephen Harper, the prime minister.

A poll of 1,000 Canadians released last week showed the Tories at 37 per cent support, with the Liberals at 29 per cent (the New Democrats had 17 per cent) – numbers that are not very different from their standings at the last January 2006 elections, but enough to give the Tories some wind in their sails.

"With these numbers, a majority is within reach of the Conservatives, but not yet in their grasp," says Peter Donolo, an analyst at Strategic Counsel, the firm that conducted the survey.

Besides the marginal improvement since their last election victory, the gains have been more remarkable when compared to a few months ago when the two leading parties were pit in a statistical dead heat.

More importantly, perhaps, the higher level of support is coming mainly from the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, seen so far as largely Liberal bastions.
 
Canadian concerns

What are Canadians thinking? According to the poll, economic, environmental and health care issues top their list of concerns, with interest in topics such as the mission in Afghanistan, national security, Canada-US relations and national unity ebbing over time.

Analysts also expect leadership to be a ballot question, pitting Harper's take-charge style against the professorial Stéphane Dion, the leader of the Liberal party.

A loss could be devastating for the fortunes of both leaders.

Dion and Harper met for a brief conversation last week, after which the Liberal leader confirmed speculation that the country is headed for the ballot box.

Blaming the prime minister for precipitating a needless election, Dion said: "He is doing it. We all know why, because he does not want time to see how much he is ill-prepared to face the economy."

Question of leadership?

Obama is applauded by Canadians for the ideals he represents [AFP]
But a spokesperson for the prime minister responded: "I think it's a question of who do you want to lead this country in uncertain economic times. Who do you want to have in charge of the country to make sure Canada stays strong and united? Who do you trust to lower crime rates? It's a question of trust and a question of leadership."

Beyond the partisan jousting, observers expect the intense left-versus-right battle being waged in the American heartland to sway minds in Canada as well.

Some see an "ideological realignment" under way, something that will have profound implications for North America in general.

Lawrence Martin, an Ottawa-based national commentator, believes this may be a rare election in which Canada mirrors political trends to its south or takes a decidedly different course. Either way, he expects Obama's candidacy to have a huge impact in Canada when an election is called.

"(Barack Obama) has caught Canadians' attention, both for who he is and what he stands for, in a way unmatched by a presidential contender perhaps since John F. Kennedy," Martin wrote last Sunday.

The question being asked around water coolers is not whether Obama will influence voting in Canada, but rather how much of a difference he can make.

George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat and International Canada published from Ottawa.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera