OTTAWA (Reuters) - The opposition Liberal Party has pulled narrowly ahead of the governing Conservatives in public support for the first time since last July, according to an opinion poll released on Thursday.
The Ekos survey put the Liberals at 31.6 percent support, up from the 30.9 percent in a poll done by the same firm last week. The Conservatives slipped to 31.1 percent from 31.5 percent while the left-leaning New Democrats slid to 14.6 percent from 14.9 percent.
The results indicate the most likely result of an election now would be deadlock, since a party needs around 36 percent of the vote to win a workable minority in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives won a strengthened minority in the October 2008 election, says Canadians do not want a national vote now. He came to power after the January 2006 election.
The poll -- the latest to show the two main parties almost tied -- also means it is very unlikely Harper will try to engineer the defeat of his government in Parliament over the next budget, due on March 4, in order to force an election.
The poll marks a notable recovery for the Liberals, who dropped 15 points behind after threatening in September to bring down the government over its handling of the economy.
The Conservative lead quickly vanished after Harper moved to have Parliament suspended until March 3, a tactic which his opponents branded as anti-democratic. Parliament should have resumed business on January 25.
"Despite considerable initial confusion over whether the government's problems were ephemeral or structural the evidence is that there has been a significant shift," said Frank Graves, president of Ekos.
Graves told Reuters that the decision to suspend Parliament had served as a catalyst for voters unhappy at what some see as Harper's authoritarian style of governing.
Based on the latest poll, Ekos projected the Liberals would win 119 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons and the Conservatives 110. The separatist Bloc Quebecois would have 46 seats, the New Democrats 30, with the rest going to minor parties and independents.
"The number is eye-popping because we did one in October that had the Conservatives at 177 (seats) ... it's like free fall," Graves said.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has been holding frequent news conferences in Parliament to outline his policies for reviving the economy while criticizing Harper.
But the Liberals -- who have lost two federal elections in a row -- said they have no plan to topple the government.
"Let's be serious. No one is talking or thinking elections here," a senior party official told Reuters.
The last time the Liberals were ahead in an Ekos survey was late July last year, when they hit 34.1 percent compared with 32.5 percent for the Conservatives.
The Ekos survey of 2,823 adults was conducted between Jan 20 and 26 and is considered accurate to within 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway