In Canadian politics, the leader of the governing party serves as the prime minister. And Martin, who helped take the country out of its fiscal troubles during his nine years as finance minister, is expected to have no problem securing his party’s leadership at its convention Friday.
Chretien still must formally retire, and reportedly plans to do so prior to the start of Parliament’s new session on Jan. 12.
“After 40 years and a half (in politics), it is time to move to something else,” Chretien, 69, said in a television interview. He reportedly plans to go back to work as a lawyer.
He threw his support to Martin, 65, saying, “Although we have accomplished so much, there is still so much more to do. Paul Martin will need all our support … and I can assure Paul that you have my support.”
The conciliatory gesture came in marked contrast to the two men’s previous leadership battles that caused party infighting and almost led to a revolt last year intended to force Chretien from power, according to the Associated Press.
At the time, Chretien said he would step down in February 2004 but yielded to party pressure to leave earlier.
Chretien’s 10 years as prime minister were marked with incidents of upheaval, including several administration scandals and Quebec nearly voting to secede from Canada in 1995.
“A few votes the other way and he may have gone down in history as one of the worst prime ministers,” said his biographer Lawrence Martin, according to The New York Times.
But Chretien also eliminated a massive budget deficit, doubled the size of the national park system and reformed campaign financing.
His government authorized the supervised distribution of methadone and heroin in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver to hard-core drug users in an attempt to reduce crime, overdoses and the spread of AIDS. A legislative measure that could come up in the new Parliament session would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Martin has said he would support the marijuana change with increased monetary penalties and would follow court rulings to legalize same-sex marriage that have made Canada one in three countries — along with the Netherlands and Belgium — to recognize the unions.
The fiscally conservative former finance minister will be challenged with rebuilding programs such as military, health care and education that had been squeezed of funding during the deficit years, according to the AP.
He also considers smoothing relations with the United States a priority after his predecessor’s decisions to not send troops to Iraq and to sign the Kyoto climate treaty, which President Bush rejected.
Martin is expected to seek a full five-year term rather than finishing the remaining two years of Chretien’s term.