OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's opposition New Democrats on Wednesday dropped the strongest hint yet that they would keep the minority Conservative government in power if Parliament votes on a non-confidence motion next month.
The left-leaning New Democratic Party, which has been among the Conservatives sternest critics, welcomed a promise by the government this week to introduce legislation to boost payments to the unemployed.
The Liberals, the biggest opposition party, say they will bring the government down as soon as possible on the grounds it is mismanaging the economic crisis.
If all three opposition parties vote in favor of the non-confidence motion, the government will fall and Canada will face its second election in a year and its fourth in just over five years.
Senior NDP legislator Thomas Mulcair said the party would study the draft legislation outlining the jobless benefits to see if it contains everything the government said it did.
"If that is indeed the case, then, of course, we will make sure that what we fought so hard to get -- which is more help for the unemployed -- will flow through as quickly as possible," he told reporters.
Parliament would not hold a final vote on the jobless benefits bill until well after the proposed Liberal non-confidence motion -- suggesting the New Democrats would decide next month to keep the Conservatives in power in the interim.
Mulcair said the government had shown movement on the jobless benefits issue but said his party would carefully study the bill: "We're not going to buy a pig in a poke."
The Conservatives are likely to survive a budget vote this Friday, since the New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois say they will both vote in favor.
"We're encouraged that some opposition parties right now are deciding to vote against having an election," Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told reporters in Washington after a visit to the White House.
"(Liberal leader Michael) Ignatieff seems to continue to be election-hungry. He's clearly not paying attention to what the Canadian people are telling him ... that this is not the time to have an election."
Mulcair declined to say how the NDP would vote on a Liberal non-confidence motion it had not yet seen. The Liberals have promised to present a motion in late September or early October.
Opinion polls show support for the New Democrats has fallen steadily in recent weeks and that the party would lose several seats if an election were held now. Mulcair dismissed the idea the NDP would suffer badly in an election this year.
"An election would cost C$350 million ($300 million) (and) probably wouldn't change anything ... we'd much rather make Parliament work," Mulcair said.
The Conservatives won last October's election with a strengthened minority. But, with just 143 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, they must rely on the support of at least one opposition party to remain in power.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Washington; editing by Rob Wilson