OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing to call an election on Sunday that looks set to be dominated by the softening economy and a carbon tax plan proposed by his chief opponent.
Harper’s Conservatives, who won power in January 2006, control a minority of seats in Parliament. Polls indicate a vote now would result in another Conservative minority.
The election -- most likely to be held on Oct. 14 -- will mark Canada’s third in four years and comes at a time when the economy is struggling to cope with the U.S. slowdown.
Under a fixed election date law brought in by Harper, the next national vote was set for October 2009. Although Harper says he wants a poll now on the grounds that Parliament has stopped working, others suspect different motives.
“Stephen Harper wants to rush into an election before Canadians can realize how little he has done to prepare our country to deal with the slowdown of the economy,” said Stephane Dion, leader of the opposition Liberal Party.
Growth so far this year has been anemic and the crucial manufacturing sector -- focused in parts of eastern Canada where Harper needs to pick up votes -- is struggling.
Harper, initially elected on a right-leaning platform that promised to crack down on crime and cut taxes, has said very little about his election platform.
That said, the Conservatives will strongly attack Dion’s carbon tax proposal. Dion initially said the plan, designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would be revenue neutral.
But amid concerns about the impact on professionals who use a lot of fuel, he modified the idea on Wednesday by offering tax breaks and subsidies.
“I think it’s a crazy time for the country to take risks,” said Harper, accusing Dion of thinking out the plan so badly “that he’s still changing it on the back of envelopes.”
The Conservatives regularly mock Dion, a former academic from French-speaking Canada who sometimes has trouble making himself understood in English.
“To get the message across you have to have someone that people are willing to listen to and this is the big question -- will the Liberals have that person?” said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal.
Dion, an outsider, surprisingly won a Liberal leadership race in late 2006 and has little support among legislators.
Indeed, many Conservatives and Liberals agree that Dion is a major liability for his party. To make matters worse for Dion, the Liberals are having trouble raising money and he is personally unpopular in his home province of Quebec.
Yet despite their many advantages, the Conservatives have rarely managed to record more than 36 percent of public support, short of the 40 percent needed for a majority under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
“I haven’t seen anything to suggest that there would be a significant change in the current political environment,” said pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research, the only pollster to correctly predict the result of the last election.
Part of the reason is continuing voter uncertainty about Harper, an aloof and rather wooden figure who opponents say is harboring an extremist agenda.
“We need to win against the most right-wing prime minister in the history of our country ... Stephen Harper wants to give George W. Bush a third term in Ottawa,” Dion said this week.
The Conservatives, who point to their record as evidence this charge is nonsense, are very strong in rural areas and western Canada. Yet they have made no headway at all in the three main cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Only one prime minister -- Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s -- has won two successive minority governments.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty