Chretien Rival to Be Canada's Next Leader

Times Staff Writer

Canada's Liberal Party anointed Paul Martin its leader and thus the nation's next prime minister Friday night, allowing the multimillionaire former finance minister to fulfill a dream he shared with his politician father.

Martin's selection also caps a long and bitter rivalry with current Prime Minister Jean Chretien, to whom he lost his first bid for the post 13 years ago. But speaking to a packed crowd of party delegates in a Toronto sports arena, Martin made clear he is driven by Canada's future, not his past.

"We have to set about doing things in a different way," he said, slipping into French for his bilingual audience. "We must be sure that Canada plays an influential role in the world. We must build an economy for the 21st century, and we must strengthen our social foundations of Canadian society."

With no significant challengers at the convention this week, Martin won 94% of the delegates' votes, transforming the Liberal Party's meeting into a kind of coronation.

Martin, who will automatically become prime minister as head of the nation's majority party, has portrayed himself as an agent of change for a party that some say has stagnated under a leader who overstayed his welcome. The Liberal Party has held power in Canada since 1993, with the conservative opposition splintered and unable to mount an effective challenge.

In his speech Friday, Martin said he would rebuild relations with the United States, which had become strained by Chretien's pattern of opposing Washington to assert Canada's independence, especially his refusal to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

But Martin emphasized that although the two countries share values and borders, they often have diverging inclinations. Martin will probably support Chretien's moves to legalize gay marriage and decriminalize marijuana, as well as push international issues the Bush administration opposes, such as the Kyoto environmental treaty and the International Criminal Court.

Martin also tried to soften his image as a hard-nosed hatchet-wielder, forged during his nine years as finance minister when he slashed education and health programs to reverse Canada's deficit. When Martin took the post, Canada's debt levels were so high that the Wall Street Journal dubbed it "an honorary Third World country."

He said he would use fiscal conservatism to fund socially progressive programs, especially universal health care -- a pledge that brought him the longest ovation of the evening.

That's the same kind of broad state support for social programs that was championed by his father, Paul Martin Sr., who lost two bids to become party leader during his 33-year political career.

"Many people have asked me about my father, asked if by becoming prime minister I will have fulfilled his dream," Martin said. "Well, the answer is no because it's not about his dream. But it's certainly about what he taught me: that the role of those in public life is to make a difference in the lives of people."

The convention's only suspense was provided by Chretien, who refused to say exactly when he would step down and allow his longtime political rival to take his place.

That leaves the country in the awkward situation of having two sitting leaders.

Chretien twisted the knife a little more when he admitted this week that Martin could have had his job almost four years ago if his rival hadn't angled so openly for it.

"You know, you don't push Chretien around," he told a CBC interviewer Thursday. "It was clear in my mind that I had to get out after two terms, so my plan was to leave at the end of 2000 ... but some people were pushy."

After going for a third term, Chretien had planned to leave his post a year early on January 12, 2004. But that leaves Martin unable to start work.

On Thursday, Chretien said he may vacate "within weeks," and plans to give a date Tuesday after a meeting with Martin. His aides said he would probably wrap up his term after a December trip to Nigeria.

Tensions between the two leaders haven't always been so deep.

Martin's work as Chretien's finance minister provided the party one of its strongest achievements, straightening out the nation's disastrous deficits. But Chretien fired Martin in June 2002 when his renewed ambitions for the top post became apparent. The move divided the party, swinging a majority of party officials behind Martin.

Facing the end of his 40-year political career, Chretien bid farewell to the Liberal Party he called his "family" at an emotional ceremony Thursday night.

In his address, Chretien warned Martin to remain faithful to Liberal social policies and not to become beholden to the big business interests that helped finance his political machine. And in an attempt to mend the rifts created by their drawn-out rivalry, he called Martin "a great Liberal" and asked the party to stand by him.

"Paul Martin will need all of our support, the support of all of us. And I can assure Paul that he has my support," Chretien said to a standing ovation.

Despite the olive branch, the celebration had an undertone of bitterness, both from Chretien for having been forced out and from others who thought he had hung on too long.

In an assessment of Chretien -- his decade as prime minister makes him the longest-serving Western leader in power -- an editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail concluded: "Greatness? No."

"As he aged in power, Mr. Chretien grew stubborn, and vain, and arrogant. He refused to admit mistakes.... He ignored policy issues until they flared into crises. As a result, he helped create some of the very problems he now gets credit for solving. And he has ensured that his successor, Mr. Martin, will be putting out fires for years to come."

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