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Canada's Liberal government falls

Opposition forces vote; election in January likely

OTTAWA -- Canada's shaky minority Liberal government lost a vote of confidence yesterday, ending a 17-month stay in office that was largely overshadowed by a patronage scandal.

Prime Minister Paul Martin was set to visit Governor General Michaelle Jean -- the representative of head of state for Queen Elizabeth -- yesterday to ask her to dissolve Parliament and set an election date.

A source close to the government told Reuters that Martin would call an election for Jan. 23, setting the scene for the country's first winter campaign in more than 25 years.

Opposition legislators, who voted 171 to 133 to bring down the government, cheered loudly when the results were declared.

Recent opinion polls show the most likely result is another minority Liberal government, which will again be forced to rely on support from other parties to stay in power.

Martin took over as prime minister in December 2003 but ran into trouble in February 2004 when it was revealed that $85 million in government advertising and sponsorship contracts had been funneled to Liberal-friendly firms for little or no work.

He lost his parliamentary majority in the June 2004 election amid widespread anger.

The opposition said the scandal -- still one of the main driving forces in Canadian politics -- was the main reason they pressed for a quick election.

In the last few weeks, the government has unveiled spending initiatives worth several billion dollars and also promised a wide range of tax cuts, prompting the opposition to accuse Martin of seeking to bribe voters.

''Does the prime minister really believe that rushing money out the door on the eve of an election will distract Canadians away from his Liberal government's sordid record of waste, mismanagement, and corruption?" deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay said in Parliament hours before the vote.

A Pollara poll released to Reuters yesterday showed public support for the Liberals at 36 percent, compared with 31 percent for the Conservatives -- figures that show Martin has scant hope of gaining a majority.

The Liberals now hold 133 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives have 98, the separatist Bloc Quebecois has 53 and the left-leaning New Democrats have 18. There are four independent legislators and two vacant seats.

''We'll get about the same number as we did last time, around 130 or 131 seats," said one Liberal campaign strategist who correctly predicted the result of the June 2004 election.

The Liberals have been in power since late 1993, when they inherited a $36 billion budget deficit from the outgoing Conservative government. The budget deficit is gone, the economy is booming, and the unemployment rate is at a 30-year low.

Martin -- widely criticized for presiding over an unfocused campaign in June 2004 -- has already made it clear that this time he will stress the government's economic record.

The last minority government to lose a confidence vote was that of then Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark, who was defeated over his budget in December 1979. He lost the subsequent February 1980 election to the Liberals.

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