OTTAWA (Reuters) - The New Democrats put on a show of unity on Thursday, a day after a parliamentary vote on gun control revealed splits that could hurt the small opposition party in the next election.
The House of Commons narrowly voted on Wednesday night to maintain a law requiring mandatory registration of rifles and shotguns, which is deeply unpopular among rural voters. Six of the NDP's 36 legislators, mostly representing large rural constituencies, voted against.
The split left the party in the sights of both the governing Conservatives and the main opposition Liberals in the run-up to an election expected some time in the next year.
The Conservatives -- who need to win another 12 seats to gain a majority in the 308-seat House of Commons -- enjoy widespread rural backing and want to scrap the registry on the grounds it is ineffective and expensive.
NDP leader Jack Layton convened a special meeting of his parliamentary caucus on Thursday morning to insist there were no problems inside the party and to denounce what he called Prime Minister Stephen Harper's divisive governing style.
"We are truly the united, democratic and truly Canadian political party ... we're not interested in short-term politics," Layton said to applause.
"He (Harper) only plays partisan politics. He only wants to divide and rule ... he sets Canadians against each other, urban against rural."
Conservatives predicted after the vote that, although they had lost, they would pick up seats in the next election. The government has notably ramped up its attacks on the opposition in the last two weeks.
"We will continue to work to scrap ... the wasteful and ineffective long-gun registry," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the House of Commons on Thursday, saying the electorate would remember those legislators who had voted to keep the registry.
The Liberals, competing for much of the same center-left segment of the electorate as the NDP, look set to campaign on the idea that the split NDP vote shows their rivals can't be trusted.
Layton, like the Liberals, said he wanted to focus on the economic recession and the effect it was having on middle-class Canadians. Harper says only his government can be trusted with the job of handling the economy.
The Conservatives unveiled a two-year C$47 billion stimulus program in February 2009 and insist it will end next March, when a new budget is likely to include painful measures to gradually eliminate the federal deficit.
"I can imagine how the Liberals would just like this to drift on and on. They never saw a program they did not want to spend more money on," said Transport Minister Chuck Strahl.
Layton, like the Liberals, has suggested that some stimulus measures might have to be kept. This divide could well prompt opposition parties to bring down the government over the budget, triggering an election.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson