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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's ruling Conservatives launched a series of biting attack ads on Monday, taking aim at opposition parties ahead of a possible election in the first half of the year.
The Conservatives won power in January 2006 and again in October 2008, but never managed to capture a majority of seats in the House of Commons. They have to rely on the support of opposition legislators to pass key measures such as budgets.
Political analysts are divided on whether the three opposition parties will unite to defeat the government over its next budget, likely in early March. That would trigger an immediate election.
Polls show that the most likely result of an election now would be a third consecutive minority Conservative government.
"(Canadians) are not looking for an opportunistic election. Their real concern is the economy," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Quebec's V channel in an interview to be shown on Monday night.
"If political parties ... provoke an election that no one wants, I think those parties will pay the price," he said. La Press newspaper obtained a copy of the interview.
The Conservatives say their advertisements are in response to an election-style tour of parts of Canada by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who has made clear he is unlikely to back the budget. And Ignatieff, a former academic who has found it hard to connect with voters, was the main target of the ads.
"Canadians should be in no doubt: the opportunist Ignatieff has decided that an election this spring is his best hope of becoming prime minister," a Conservative statement said.
Ignatieff, worrying about yawning budget deficits, promises to scrap C$6 billion in annual corporate tax cuts and annul a C$9 billion deal to buy new fighter jets.
The Conservative ads variously described Ignatieff as an untrustworthy dreamer who would raise taxes.
"This is more of the same mud and invective we've come to expect from Harper -- dividing Canadians with Republican-style personal attacks and fabricated claims," the Liberals said in a statement, describing the prime minister as "a one-man show who will say anything to hold onto power".
If the government is to survive, the budget will most likely need the backing of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which has indicated it might be open to a deal.
But one Conservative ad portrays Layton as a desperate man who would do anything to get power, noting that in December 2008 he agreed with the Liberals to create a coalition backed by the separatist Bloc Quebecois. The deal never took effect.
"He did it before. He'll do it again. And Canada will pay the price," said the Conservative ad.
Layton said on Sunday that his party -- which wants more help for seniors and certain investments in manufacturing -- was always trying make things work.
"Most Canadians don't think about the horse race on Parliament Hill. They probably think about another part of the horse," he told CTV television.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman