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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Tuesday he would decide in coming weeks whether an election is needed this year to give a new mandate to a Parliament that he has increasingly described as dysfunctional.
The head of the Liberal Party, Stephane Dion, also said he was considering pulling the plug on the minority Conservative government, but remained coy on whether he would do so this year, saying timing was key.
And one poll suggested that after 2-1/2 years, much longer than the normal Canadian minority government, voters are becoming more eager for an election.
For most of his mandate so far, Harper has said he hoped to govern until the fixed election date of October 19, 2009, but he has lately expressed growing frustration with what he calls Liberal obstruction.
"What I will have to decide over the next few weeks is whether or not we can have a productive fall session of Parliament, or whether in fact the government -- a government -- needs a new mandate," Harper told reporters.
The Conservatives won the last general election in January 2006 with only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, meaning they must rely on the support of at least one opposition party to govern.
Polls put the Conservatives close to the Liberals in public support, and Harper allowed that the most likely result of a new vote would be another minority government.
"I think polls do indicate that the next election in all likelihood would be a minority, one way or the other," Harper said during a funding announcement in Hamilton, Ontario.
He said he would seek the input of some opposition leaders in analyzing the situation to "ensure that, one way or another, we can have a productive Parliament in the future." Dion said his officials and Harper's were trying to set up such a meeting.
An Ipsos-Reid poll released on Tuesday found that while in the spring, only 27 percent of Canadians wanted an election, that number has grown to 40 percent, slightly ahead of the 38 percent who currently see no need for a vote.
The poll, released by the CanWest newspapers, also found the Conservatives ahead 36 percent to 30 percent for the Liberals -- just inside the margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The Conservatives advanced two points since Ipsos Reid's survey two weeks earlier.
By contrast, a Harris-Decima poll released last week put the Liberals ahead by 33 percent to 32 percent.
Harper said the two smallest opposition parties in Parliament -- the separatist Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats -- both want an election now but that Dion has been dithering.
"Mr. Dion has indicated that the government should be defeated, but he's not sure when he'll do that, because he hasn't got good enough polls. I don't think that's a particularly responsible position," Harper said.
Dion quickly scheduled a news conference to respond to the prime minister, and said he would take into account the fact that more Canadians than before want an election.
"I'm considering different possibilities, and one of them is certainly to stop (having) strategic voting when we disagree with this government, and then to trigger an election is something we may do," Dion said.
But he said it was not his job to force an election just because Harper wanted him to do so: "My job is to replace him, and timing is important."
With each pronouncement, Harper is making it clearer that he does not consider himself bound to wait for an election on next year's fixed date. It was his government put in the law establishing fixed election dates.
The law has generally been understood to mean the prime minister would not trigger an election himself, but it does allow for the dissolution of Parliament before the fixed date if the government is defeated in a vote of confidence.
Dion acknowledged Harper has the constitutional authority to force an election but said he would be violating the spirit of his own law if he did so.
Editing by Peter Galloway