OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's minority Conservative government stoked up talk of an early election on Thursday, threatening a quick vote of confidence in a clear bid to make the chief opposition leader look weak.
Ministers said legislators could vote as early as Monday unless the Senate upper chamber made clear it would pass a crime bill by the end of the month.
Two opposition parties immediately said they would ensure the government did not fall over the crime bill motion, but a series of other confidence votes expected over the next two months kept election speculation on the boil.
The Conservatives are confident of their electoral chances and appeared ready to use the threat of an election to force the opposition's hand.
"It's a juvenile trick by a government desperate to fall," Liberal leader Stephane Dion, head of the largest opposition party, told a crush of reporters as he announced his party would ensure the government survived on this vote.
If the government were to lose a confidence vote in the House of Commons, it would be defeated and an election called immediately.
Polls show the most likely result of an election now would be another minority Conservative government. The Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, won power in January 2006.
They are flush with cash and cite polling numbers showing Harper is preferred over Dion. Some Conservatives also say it might be better to go now, when unemployment is low, than later when a global slowdown might have started to bite.
The government is angry over what it calls obstruction of the crime bill by the Senate, Parliament's upper house, where the Liberals hold a majority. Liberal senators are resisting pressure to approve the bill.
Party strategists say a House of Commons vote on a motion decrying lack of Senate progress on the bill would show up what they say are the weaknesses of Dion, who has failed to inspire much enthusiasm since taking over the Liberal leadership in December 2006.
The House of Commons had already adopted the crime bill. The Senate, whose members are appointed by the government of the day, would not be obliged to respect a House of Commons motion urging them to act quickly on the crime bill.
Asked what would happen if the Senate ignored such a motion, government minister Peter Van Loan said: "It would be a clear signal that Stephane Dion is a weak leader and is not in control of his party. That's what it would tell Canadians."
A poll by Nanos Research released on Thursday said 30 percent of Canadians regarded Harper as the most trustworthy leader, compared with 14 percent for Dion. When asked who was the most competent leader, 39 percent chose Harper and 16 percent opted for Dion.
Further confidence votes could take place in late February and March. The government is expected to present its budget soon and is also promising a vote in late March on whether to extend the country's military mission in Afghanistan.
"The prime minister is so afraid of the economic slowdown and the debates on his aid plan and the budget and Afghanistan that he really wants an election on something else," said Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe in announcing he would vote for the crime bill motion. "It's a bit of an infantile game."
Under Canada's fixed-date legislation, the next election is not due until October 2009. Although Harper says he wants to govern until then, few observers believe he will make it.
If the government lost the vote on the budget or Afghanistan, an election would likely be held in April or May.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway