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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won re-election with a significantly stronger minority government and called on Wednesday for unity in staring down global financial turbulence.
The Conservative leader came just 10 or 12 votes short of a majority in the 308-seat Parliament but both he and Liberal opposition leader Stephane Dion reached out in recognizing the seriousness of the economic challenges facing Canada.
"This is a time for us all to put aside political differences and partisan considerations and to work cooperatively for the benefit of Canada," Harper, 49, told a victory celebration in his home town of Calgary.
"We stretch out a hand to all members of all parties asking them to join together to protect our economy and to weather this world financial crisis."
Harper had run on providing a steady economic hand and his government was widely expected to offer public money soon to facilitate interbank borrowing to help Canadian banks.
He will still have to rely on the support of at least one of the three opposition parties to govern, but the Liberals said that they would cooperate at least for now.
"We stand ready to work with all political parties to make this Parliament work, because we have serious work to do," Dion said as he conceded defeat.
Underneath the surface the Liberals, who had drawn scorn from all sides over the past year for keeping the Conservatives in power because of their poor poll standings, suggested their patience might not be unlimited this time.
"I want to give Canadians an official opposition that's dignified, effective, attacks, holds Harper to account and brings him down when the time comes," deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told CBC television.
Another senior Liberal, Bob Rae, said Harper must still win the confidence of the House of Commons. Political analysts said with nearly twice as many seats as the Liberals, the Conservatives were almost certain not to be toppled for now, particularly as Liberal coffers are nearly empty and the party could be facing an internal battle to replace Dion.
The Liberals will be licking their wounds after their worst showing in terms of seats since 1984 and their lowest percentage of the vote since the 1860s.
Preliminary results showed the Conservatives moved up to 37.7 percent of the vote from 36.3 percent in 2006, while the Liberals declined 4 points to 26.2 percent.
In terms of seats, Harper's party rose to 143 from the 127 they held before the election while the Liberals dropped to 77 from 95. The separatist Bloc Quebecois rose one to 49 seats, the leftist New Democrats jumped seven to 37 and two independents were elected.
"I think my party failed to deliver a real cogent response to the economic and financial crisis," said defeated Liberal legislator Garth Turner.
Dion, a francophone professor whose poor English went down badly in English Canada, had put most of his emphasis on a new carbon tax accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies. That proved a tough sell at a time of relatively high energy costs.
Liberal rules stipulate that the party face a decision over whether to keep leaders who lose an election.
However, he gave no suggestion he would go willingly. "Canadians are asking me to be the leader of the opposition, and I accept that responsibility with honor," he said.
One of Dion's problems was that he was competing with two other parties on the left nationally -- the New Democrats and the Greens -- along with a fourth party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the province of Quebec.
Each party argued it was the best one to deny Harper a second term. Just as a split on the right guaranteed Liberal rule from 1993 to 2006, a split on the left helped the Conservatives.
The result is Canada's third straight minority government, and the second back-to-back one for Harper, only the second prime minister -- after Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s -- to win two consecutive minority governments.
Additional reporting by Louise Egan, Allan Dowd, Jeffrey Jones and Scott Haggett; Editing by Eric Walsh