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The man who showed Liberals the door

Stephen Harper, Canada's next prime minister, will be the country's first right-wing leader in 12 years.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2006 11:50 IST

Stephen Harper, Canada's next prime minister, will be the country's first right-wing leader in 12 years.

Harper, 46, is largely unknown abroad, but the Conservative Party leader will soon find himself alongside leaders like US President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao at global summits.

Once seen as prickly, awkward, and more at home ploughing through economic theory than glad-handing voters on the campaign trail, Harper smoothed his image over the seven-week campaign.

 

 Stephen Harper with wife Laureen Teskey

His new look helped him haul his party ahead of the Liberals midway through the bitter seven-week campaign, and to head off claims by outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin that he was an extremist.

Whatever his political future holds, he will for now be renowned as the man who thwarted a Liberal Party bid for a fifth election victory in a row.

Harper's sheaf of daily policy announcements and concentration on corruption scandals tainting the Liberals allowed him to keep the focus away from issues like his opposition to the Kyoto climate change accord, or willingness to review a Canadian decision not to rejoin the US anti-ballistic missile shield.

Harper, a father of two with a gray mop of hair neatly parted and sky-blue eyes, carved out an early reputation as a brilliant theoretical economist.

Opponents have charged his suave new image masks a hardline right wing agenda, with much in common with the US political powerbase of Bush, who is highly unpopular in Canada.

Martin claimed during the campaign that Harper wanted to curtail abortion rights, reverse same sex marriage reforms, and stack Canadian courts with conservative judges hostile to mainstream Canadian values.

But Harper marginalised more extreme elements of his own party during his successful election campaign, and seemed to track towards the center -- aware that doing so gave him the best chance of victory in mostly moderate Canada.

Before gunning for power, Harper succeeded in merging Canada's two rightist parties into the Conservative Party of Canada.

But the task left him little time to lay out a coherent electoral strategy, and his party lost out to Martin's in the last Canadian election in June 2004.

The Conservative campaign sank under the weight of his and others' controversial statements on abortion and gay marriage, allowing the Liberals to form a minority government.

This time round, Harper learned from past mistakes.

His party has become more centrist, focused on fiscal initiatives instead of social conservatism while the fringe elements in its midst have been muzzled.

He promised tax cuts to middle class Canadians, more military spending, and to devolve more power to the provinces.

Still, Harper has not changed his core political beliefs. He remains hostile to gay marriage and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change ratified by Canada.

His only other known passion is ice hockey. Even during a hectic election campaign, he found time to work on a book on the history of a sport followed with feverish passion in frigid Canada.

Harper was first elected to the House of Commons in 1993, but quit politics in 1997 to work for a conservative lobby group.

He returned to Ottawa in 2002 as head of the Canadian Alliance, a party born out of the ashes of the Reform Party.

He made it his mission to reunite Canada's fractured political right to challenge the Liberals' decade-long hegemony.

First Published: Jan 24, 2006 11:35 IST