Long absence weighs on Canada election challenger

AP News
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Posted: Apr 27, 2011 11:47 AM
Long absence weighs on Canada election challenger

Michael Ignatieff should have a lot going for him in his race to be Canada's next prime minister _ charismatic, telegenic, a public intellectual whose expertise on human rights has done his country credit.

But there's a problem _ he spent about half his life abroad, and as Monday's election approaches, that absence has become one more burden weighing him down in the polls.

His Conservative opponents, favorites to win another term, are making relentless use of the more than 30 years he lived in Europe and the U.S. "Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting," goes one election ad. "Back in Canada. But for how long?" mocks another.

Meanwhile, the verve and braininess that captivated his TV audiences in Britain, or his students at Harvard, have failed to galvanize the fortunes of the Liberal Party that he took over in 2009.

Stephen Harper, prime minister since 2006, looks set to triumph again, and this time perhaps achieve the outright majority that has so far eluded him. If so, it will be the Conservative leader's third straight victory, and he will surely present it as further progress toward killing the notion that the Liberals, once the home of such luminaries as Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, are Canada's "natural party of government."

"Are we witnessing the strange death of Liberal Canada?" Asked John Ivison, a respected political commentator, in the online National Post on Tuesday.

He wrote after EKOS, a private polling company, shocked Canadians by showing the Conservatives at 33.7 percent, the New Democratic Party at 28 and the Liberals at 23.7, meaning Ignatieff wouldn't even serve as leader of the opposition in Parliament. The pollsters said they questioned 3,000 voters and gave a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.

The surprise surge by the leftist NDP, the Quebec nationalists' perennial wild card role, and Conservative policies that have seen Canada through the worldwide recession in relatively good shape _ all these are working against 63-year-old Ignatieff even as he is remains relatively unknown to Canadians.

His friends in England and the U.S. are dismayed about the rough ride he has encountered. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic magazine, says it reminds him of the punch line in the joke about a man on the Titanic staring into his glass and muttering "I asked for ice but this is ridiculous."

Ignatieff himself sounds surprised, though stoical.

"Did I expect it to be this tough? Probably not," he told The Associated Press. "But this isn't showbiz. This is political life. You've got to be tough. They've thrown a lot of nonsense at me and I'm still standing. They may have tried it with other leaders but they will not succeed with me."

Descended from Russia's Czarist aristocracy, Toronto-born Ignatieff earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and has lectured at Oxford, Cambridge,the University of California at Berkeley and the London School of Economics. He hosted award-winning TV shows on the BBC, and worked as a journalist in Rwanda and Kosovo. He has written 17 books and a critically acclaimed family history, "The Russian Album." He is married to Hungarian-born Zsuzsanna Zsohar and has two children from a previous marriage.

Ignatieff is fluent in French, a must in a country where English and French are the official languages, as well as in Russian.

In Europe, he was a compelling voice explaining the post-Cold War world, the implosion of Yugoslavia, and the role of human rights in international diplomacy.

He became known in the U.S. as one of the high-profile liberals who supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, citing Saddam Hussein's human rights crimes. President Barack Obama says he reads Ignatieff. Samantha Power, a senior foreign policy adviser, is a close friend.

Larry Summers, an ex-president of Harvard, remembers him as a brilliant teacher who brought a moral dimension to political questions and excited his students.

"Michael is a very smart, enormously thoughtful guy. There's no one else I know who has run for office who has Michael's intellectual depth and breath," Summers, Obama's former top economic adviser, told The AP.

When they recruited Ignatieff a few years ago, Liberal Party insiders were hoping he would rekindle the Kennedyesque aura of Trudeau that had proven so successful during his 15 years as prime minister.

But Stephen Clarkson, a professor at the University of Toronto, noted a crucial difference: Trudeau walked straight into the prime minister's office when he was elected party leader; Ignatieff couldn't even win the party leadership on his first try.

He said he couldn't understand how the Liberals thought a public intellectual with no political experience and who hadn't lived in Canada for 30 years could be a "magic bullet."