VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Opposition parties said on Sunday it was hypocritical for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to accuse them of plotting to take power in a coalition government since he had once considered doing it himself.
The Conservative government's charge that the Liberal, New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties plan to form a coalition government after the May 2 election has become the first major issue of the campaign that began on Saturday.
Polls show the Conservatives with a comfortable lead coming into the election, but they still do not appear to have enough support to win majority status -- something they also failed to get in the 2006 and 2008 votes.
Harper warned on Sunday that if his government fails to win a majority that does not require opposition support to stay in power, the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois will band together in a coalition government that will hurt the economy.
The Bloc Quebecois advocates sovereignty for the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec. This makes making working too closely with it a political liability in English-speaking Canada for the other parties.
The Conservative charge stems from a 2008 deal the Liberals signed with the NDP to unseat Harper with backing of the Bloc Quebecois. Harper blocked that by having Parliament briefly suspended until the deal fell apart.
The other parties shot back, saying Harper negotiated a similar deal in 2004 with the Bloc and New Democrats to topple the then-Liberal Government. That agreement also fell apart and the Liberals remained in power until the 2006 vote.
"It (a coalition government) certainly was one of the options that was discussed around the table," NDP leader Jack Layton told reporters about meetings he had with Harper and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in 2004.
A letter by Harper, Layton and Duceppe on how to unseat Liberals without holding an election does not use the word "coalition," but Duceppe joked on Sunday, "If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it's a duck."
Harper, who needs to expand his political base beyond western Canada to win a majority government, denied the agreement in 2004 ever involved forming a coalition government with the other parties.
Harper said Duceppe was changing his version of what happened, and the Conservative leader charged that a vote for the Bloc Quebecois now will lead to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff becoming the next Prime Minister.
The Bloc only runs candidates in Quebec, but it far outpaces the other federal parties in that province.
Reporting by Allan Dowd and David Ljunggren, Editing by Eric Walsh