OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a rare appeal to be given a majority of seats in Parliament, raising an idea that has hurt him in the past but which he may try to turn to his advantage now.
Saying that a majority is within reach, he made the appeal to a Conservative gathering last week just as Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced his party would try to bring down the minority Conservative government and force a new election.
A student videotaped Harper's speech and handed it to the Liberals, which were distributing copies to the media on Thursday.
Harper referred to an unpopular attempt in December by the three opposition parties -- the Liberals, the left-leaning New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois -- to defeat the Conservatives and replace them with a coalition government.
"They will deny this till they're blue in the face in an election campaign, but I guarantee it -- if we do not win a majority, this country will have a Liberal government propped up by the socialists and the separatists," Harper said in his speech.
Recent opinion polls show that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have strong enough support to win a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won last October's election with a strengthened minority, but still must rely on the support of at least one opposition party to remain in power.
However, four polls released this week showed the Conservatives opening up a gap of 3 to 5 percentage points over the Liberals, but remaining several points shy of what they would likely need to form a majority government.
An Ekos automated telephone poll, released by CBC television on Thursday, showed the Liberals suddenly gave ground to the Conservatives when Ignatieff said on September 1 the Liberals would present a non-confidence motion in an effort to defeat the government.
After a tie last week, the Ekos poll had the Conservatives ahead 34.2 percent to 30.8 percent for the Liberals, with 14.8 percent for the New Democrats, 10.1 percent for the Green Party, which does not have a seat in Parliament, and 10.0 percent for the Bloc Quebecois.
Traditionally, a party needs around 40 percent of the popular vote nationally to form a majority.
"The Liberals have suffered setbacks in public opinion each time they have threatened the Harper government since the election last October: first, during the talk of a coalition soon after the election; second, when Michael Ignatieff seemed to threaten an election in June; and again now," said Ekos President Frank Graves. "Voters are genuinely annoyed."
Ignatieff called a news conference to react to Harper's speech, saying it showed a man who held his adversaries and Canada's institutions in contempt.
"It's impossible to work with a man who treats you as an enemy," he said. He also said he had not met one Canadian who thought Harper deserved a majority.
Canada has had minority governments since 2004, and the Conservatives won minority mandates in 2006 and 2008.
When Harper has talked about majority governments in the past, his polling numbers have fallen as some Canadians feared giving him free rein, and on Thursday the Liberal Party renewed its past theme that Harper has a hidden, right-wing agenda.
However, since Harper has been in power he has sought to counter the hidden-agenda accusations by saying Canadians can look to his record.
In his speech in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, last week, he said the only way to prevent the three opposition parties from taking power in a coalition was to hand him a majority.
"It will be a choice between having a Conservative government and not having a Conservative government. Let me be clear about this. We need to win a majority in the next election campaign," he said.
Ignatieff sidestepped a question as to whether he would form a coalition or appoint New Democrats as cabinet ministers, as envisaged in last December's coalition deal.
In December he had thrown his backing behind that agreement but he pointed out on Thursday that when he became Liberal leader he declined to proceed with the coalition as not being in the national interest.
Editing by Peter Galloway