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CANADA

Opposition leader Stephane Dion to step down

3 min

Canada's Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion has announced he will step down following his party's crushing defeat during last Tuesday's federal election. He will leave office once his successor is chosen.

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The leader of Canada's main opposition and once-formidable Liberals, Stephane Dion, said Monday he would step aside after his party's worst election defeat in two decades last week.

Thus he will become one of few leaders in the party's history not to go on to become prime minister, which he blamed on his Conservative rival's negative campaign.

Dion said at a press conference after nearly a week in seclusion that he would stay on as "leader until a new leader is chosen at a leadership convention that I have asked the party to begin to organize."

"I will not be a candidate for the leadership of my party at that convention," he told reporters.

Dion said he would intead "remain as leader in order to ensure a smooth and successful transition" and would "also work hard in the meantime to prepare my party properly for the next leader."

The Liberals' next convention was scheduled for May 2009, but could be moved up under the new circumstances.

The Liberals under Dion's leadership won 76 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons in the October 14 vote -- 27 less than in the previous January 2006 ballot, and a mere 36 more seats than an all-time low of 40 in 1984.

The party's popular support meanwhile plunged to 26 percent, its lowest level since Canada's first national elections in 1867.

Dion blamed the devastating loss on a lack of cash in their coffers to counter the ruling Conservatives' "distortion" of their platform.

Throughout the campaign, he admittedly struggled to sell his plan for the largest tax shift in recent Canadian history, massively cutting income and corporate taxes to offset a new pollution tax.

It was, said Dion, "an income tax cut, one of the largest cuts in Canadian history."

"Yet the Conservatives were able, because of a massive financial advantage, to distort this policy into a tax increase," he said.

"At the end of the day, people thought it was a carbon tax, period, and they were afraid of it, especially in this time of the economic uncertainty."

While the Conservatives' advertising budget was "huge, well-financed, and effective," the Liberal Party was still paying off debts from past contests.

"There is no way that the Liberal Party could have countered that advertising campaign given our existing financial crisis," he said.

During the campaign, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin opined in a new book that rules enacted by his predecessor Jean Chretien limiting corporate donations handicapped the party.

In contrast, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives amassed huge sums from individual donors.

Over the past 140 years, the Liberal Party of Canada had become one of the most successful political parties in the world, winning 22 general elections and earning the tag "Canada's natural governing party."

Under Martin and Dion's leadership, however, it steadily lost ground in the past three ballots, against Harper who won a second minority government this round by touting "responsible, modest and achievable action" amid a global financial crisis and predictions of a possible recession in 2009.

Of late, the centrist Liberals were also squeezed by the emergence of three leftist parties.

In December 2006, Dion had surprised everyone by beating the frontrunners for the leadership of the Liberals.

"I've always been underestimated, it's my strength and so far it has served me well," the tall, thin former professor who celebrated his 53rd birthday on the campaign trail, said after his Liberal convention victory.

Since then, however, his leadership remained under constant scrutiny and rumors of a mutiny abounded.

Dion's lack of charisma and his difficulties expressing himself in English -- the language spoken by 75 percent of Canadians -- often eclipsed his personal integrity and intellectual prowess.
 

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