OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff has reopened the debate on bringing the government down, even as a new opinion poll on Thursday gave him at best a limited chance of success.
Ignatieff's Liberals have been out of power since early 2006 and internal pressure is building on him to take on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives hold only a minority of seats in the House of Commons and must rely on other parties to govern.
Last month Ignatieff threatened to introduce a non-confidence motion unless the government overhauled the unemployment benefits system. He quickly backed down, agreeing merely to set up a joint panel to examine the Employment Insurance program.
That panel will not report back until September but Ignatieff -- who complains Ottawa is not doing enough to help Canadians deal with the economic crisis -- reverted to his hard-line stance on Wednesday.
"I have always tried to work with the government, trying to put the country first, but it's getting tougher and tougher," he told CTV television.
Asked whether he would introduce a non-confidence motion when Parliament reconvened in September, he said that was "not an unreasonable extrapolation".
If all three opposition parties backed the motion, the government would fall, and Canadians would head into their fourth election in just over five years.
Steve Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, said Ignatieff needs to show he could trigger an election if necessary, while also demonstrating he could make Parliament work.
"There's not a lot of option between allowing this government to govern and forcing an election ... the system is built around 'Who's going to blink first?' " he told Reuters.
Ignatieff's problem is that while voters show little enthusiasm for Harper and his policies, they are not flocking to the Liberals either.
A weekly Ekos survey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday put the Liberals at 34.1 percent support, up from 32.5 percent last week. The Conservatives were at 32.5 percent, down from 32.8 percent.
Under Canada's first-past-the-post system, a party needs around 36 percent of the vote to be sure of capturing a minority government, and 40 percent to have a chance at a majority.
"The (Conservatives) would probably narrowly lose an election if it were held right now," Ekos President Frank Graves said in a statement.
"But the voters don't see any compelling reason to have an election just to replace a fragile Conservative minority with a fragile Liberal minority."
Harper urged the Liberals on Thursday to co-operate with the government, telling a news conference that "we do not need another round of political instability, another round of elections".
Another big hurdle for Ignatieff is that both the other, smaller opposition parties would have to back a Liberal non-confidence motion for it to succeed.
"It's really three people against one and they all have to be able to stab their opponent at the same time," University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman told Reuters, saying there was no guarantee the other two would be in a mood to co-operate.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson