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Ontario Tories call election after energy crisis

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TORONTO, Ontario (Reuters) -- Ontario Premier Ernie Eves called an election for Oct. 2 Tuesday, with his conservative government facing an uphill battle to woo voters angry at health and education cuts and the botched deregulation of the province's electricity market.

Eves launched his campaign with promises to make mortgage interest tax-deductible and ban teachers' strikes during the school year if his right-of-center Conservative Party is reelected to a third straight mandate.

But the government, in power in Canada's most populous province since 1995, remains well behind the opposition Liberal Party in the polls.

"People are very worried about the quality of public services, and it's hard to have held two consecutive majority governments in a parliamentary system and claim that there's someone else to blame," said Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

The Tories came from behind to win re-election in 1999, but suffered a blow the following year when seven people in Walkerton, Ontario died after drinking bacteria-tainted water -- a scandal critics blamed on government cutbacks and poor regulation.

The closure last week of an Ontario meat-packing plant amid allegations of a breach of health rules revived memories of Walkerton.

Critics also lashed out at the government after last month's blackout spiraled into a week-long energy crisis, although Eves won high marks from some commentators for his response.

Ontario, Canada's economic powerhouse, lagged the United States in getting its power plants back to full operation, prompting the provincial government to impose usage limits that left manufacturers operating at reduced speed.

An outbreak of SARS earlier this year, which killed dozens of residents and hobbled Toronto's economy, has only added to the malaise.

A poll taken by Environics Research Group in early July showed 46 percent of decided voters supporting the Liberals, 33 percent the Conservatives and 17 percent the New Democratic Party.

Eves used his first campaign speech to attack Liberal Party leader Dalton McGuinty, saying he would lead a government that stands for "high taxes, big unions and special interests."

McGuinty, in turn, slammed Eves for his record and said a third mandate would allow the Tories to "go right back to attacking our schools and undermining our health care."

Eves was also criticized for the province's response to last month's blackout, which left 50 million people without electricity in the Canadian province and in the U.S. Northeast. The government has come under pressure throughout its term for its handling of the province's power supply.

Ontario's experiment with electricity market deregulation last year sent the government's popularity into a tailspin as consumer prices soared. Eves stepped in and froze electricity prices, a move experts said would choke off private investment in power plants.

"The Tories are still very vulnerable on the electricity file...I don't think his viability during the blackout will be enough to change people's attitudes dramatically," said Jane Armstrong, a senior vice-president with Environics.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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