September 14, 2009 / 6:49 PM / 8 years ago

Canada minority party leader eyes gamble on PM

<p>New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton responds to questions about the possibility of federal fall election during a news conference at the Delta Barrington hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 3, 2009.Paul Darrow</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Jack Layton, leader of Canada's left-leaning opposition New Democrats, has suddenly dropped his relentless criticism of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and is mulling some kind of deal to keep his right-wing rival in power.

Monday's developments came as a surprise, but fit in with Layton's vision of his minority party as a pragmatic grouping that can work with other parties to further its own agenda.

It also reflects opinion polls that show that if an election were held now, Layton's party would lose some of the seats it picked up in the October 2008 national vote.

The possibility of an election sprang up earlier this month when the Liberals, the biggest opposition party, announced they can no longer support the government. The third opposition party, the Quebec-based, separatist Bloc Quebecois, seems unlikely to. If the government falls, it would trigger Canada's fourth election in little over five years.

Layton, a former deputy mayor of Toronto, is fond of reminding his audiences that the New Democrats supported the former minority Liberal government in 2005 in return for a mini-budget that promised billions extra in social spending measures.

The Liberals at least share the same centrist-left slice of the voter spectrum as the New Democrats.

But Layton now seems ready to try to do a deal with a right-wing prime minister who regularly dismisses the New Democrats as "socialists".

Indeed, in late August Layton said a deal with the ruling Conservatives would be unlikely "because we have very fundamental differences with the direction that they're taking the country".

If Layton can persuade voters that this change in stance is principled, it will be another success in his long journey to turn the New Democrats from an also-ran party into a more serious political player.

Layton, 59, took over the New Democrats in 2003 at a time when the party had a handful of seats in the House of Commons and looked doomed to irrelevance.

Under his energetic leadership, the party gradually increased the number of legislators in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections and now has 37 members of Parliament, just six short of its record high in 1988.

The party favors increased social spending, a more concrete effort to fight climate change, action to prevent "gouging" by credit card companies, and more help for the aged.

The party is also strongly opposed to Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

Jack Layton was born on July 18, 1950. He is married to fellow New Democrat legislator Olivia Chow and has two children from a previous marriage.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway

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