| Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien falls while playing basketball at an army base near Angus, Ontario. (Reuters)
Chicoutimi (Quebec), Aug 22 (Reuters): Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien bowed to pressure from his ruling Liberal Party yesterday and unexpectedly announced he would quit in February 2004, a month after his 70th birthday.
Chretien, facing an increasingly fractious party, said he hoped his surprise decision would help heal a rift between his supporters and those of arch-rival Paul Martin, his former finance minister.
“I will not run again,” he said, as some staff members and Cabinet ministers choked back tears. I will fulfill my mandate and focus entirely on governing from now until February 2004, at which time my work will be done and at which time my successor is chosen.”
Chretien, now 68, won power in 1993 and led the Liberals to three straight election victories, the last in November 2000.
But his popularity has been tumbling in recent opinion polls, and his persistent refusal to make it clear whether he would seek a fourth term stoked already high tensions with the impatient Martin camp.
Chretien sacked the fiscally more conservative Martin in early June for refusing to shut down an unofficial leadership campaign, triggering a power struggle that paralysed the government and threatened to tear the party in two.
“This summer we have not been focused on governing. We are not doing our job. Canadians don’t like that. Liberals don’t like that,” Chretien said in the statement, which he first read to the Liberal parliamentary caucus and then repeated on national television.
“For 40 years the Liberal Party has been like family to me. Its best interests are bred in my bones. I have reflected on the best way to bring back unity, to end the fighting, to resume interrupted friendships.”
The Liberals will now be able to avoid bitter fighting that had been predicted in the run-up to a leadership review in February 2003, which is now all but certain to be abandoned.
The Martin camp offered an olive branch to the strife-hit party by making it clear it would not press for a review.
Martin himself read a brief statement praising Chretien as “an outstanding Prime Minister” without whom those in the government would not have enjoyed the success they did.
“He is a man for whom I have the highest respect,” said Martin, 63. The problem for Martin — at this stage the clear front-runner to succeed Chretien — is that if a review is not held until 2004, it will give his Cabinet rivals plenty of time to organise their own leadership campaigns.