OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada scrambled yesterday to prevent the fall of his government amid a kickback scandal in his Liberal Party, as a new poll indicated the opposition Conservatives would easily win fresh elections if held today.
In what some say is Canada's version of Watergate, in terms of magnitude and potential damage, Martin reiterated that he had nothing to do with the ethics fiasco.
Liberal Party members are accused of having taken kickbacks from advertising agencies hired to promote federalism in the rebellious French-speaking province of Quebec.
''Not only do I have the moral authority, I have the moral responsibility" to keep the government afloat until the full inquiry into the scandal concludes in the fall, Martin said. ''Canadians are entitled to ask someone to step forward, and I'm the prime minister of this country. I can assure you that anyone who has been implicated is going to be punished."
The halls of Parliament were rife with speculation about whether new elections were near.
The separatist Bloc Quebecois could introduce a confidence motion by Thursday, though the more powerful Conservative Party was hedging, knowing most Canadians are not keen for new elections.
''There is a depth of anger there. The Liberal Party is in deep, deep trouble," said Richard Simeon, professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
A poll published by the Toronto Star yesterday indicated that 25 percent of those questioned last week would vote for the Liberals if elections were held today. The Conservatives were backed by 36 percent, up 10 points from a survey taken in February.
The poll, conducted by EKOS Research Associates, surveyed 1,125 Canadians over voting age between last Thursday and Saturday, with a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
The scandal, based on a secret program that dates back to the 1990s and the Liberal Party leadership of former prime minister Jean Chretien, erupted anew last Thursday when a judge probing the alleged misuse of public funds lifted a publication ban on testimony by a Montreal ad executive.
The executive, Jean Brault, who faces fraud charges stemming from the now-defunct program, told the federal inquiry that senior Liberals forced him to secretly divert more than $818,000 to the party's Quebec wing in exchange for sponsorship contracts.
Chretien and Martin have vehemently denied any personal knowledge of wrongdoing.
Amid shouting in the House of Commons yesterday, Martin told lawmakers he was the one who dissolved the program, convened the commission to investigate the project, and filed lawsuits against 19 ad agencies to recover government funds.