April 14, 2011 / 3:17 AM / in 6 years

Canadian leaders battle for votes in Quebec

<p>New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton (L) debates with Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe during the French-language leaders' debate in Ottawa April 13, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/Pool</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian political leaders battled on prime time television on Wednesday to win the support of voters in Quebec, a pivotal province that could go a long way to deciding who wins the May 2 election.

The ruling Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper are ahead in the polls but need to make a breakthrough in Quebec to boost their chances of winning a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Quebec accounts for 75 seats in the House of Commons and 47 of them are currently in the hands of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which wants independence for the predominantly French-speaking province.

Harper and the leaders of the two national opposition parties had trouble landing effective blows during the French-language debate, suggesting the race remains close.

Harper said the Bloc -- which only campaigns in Quebec -- could never be a driving force in Ottawa.

"Only Conservative legislators, the Conservative government are delivering the goods for the regions. You need to have your region included in the government," he said.

The Conservatives have 11 of Quebec's 75 seats and polls suggest they will have trouble keeping all of them.

The Bloc's strength is one of the main reasons that no party in Canada, the largest supplier of energy to the United States, can win enough seats to win a majority government.

The May election will be Canada's fourth in less than seven years.

The tone of the discussion was more short-tempered than during Tuesday's English-language debate, where Harper largely succeeded in brushing off opposition attacks on his record.

Harper, speaking his second language, looked unusually ill at ease and stumbled over his words several times.

Michael Ignatieff, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, and Jack Layton of the left-leaning New Democrats were more comfortable during the two-hour exchange.

Quebec only narrowly failed to break away from the rest of Canada in a 1995 referendum and the issue of its status remains sensitive in the country.

Some Bloc supporters are not separatists but vote for the party because they think it will defend their interests in Ottawa, leaving open the possibility they could vote for another party if they felt it respected Quebec enough.

The three opposition parties brought down the government last month, arguing it had shown contempt for Parliament by not being open about its spending plans.

Harper says that if he only wins a minority, the Liberals will quickly move to form a coalition with the Bloc and the New Democrats. Ignatieff dismisses the idea as nonsense.

The three opposition leaders accused the right-of-center Conservatives of harboring a secret extremist agenda.

"There is only one party capable of beating the Conservatives (in Quebec) and prevent a Conservative majority and we have proved it ... Canada should thank us for it," said Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe.

Harper says he needs a majority of seats in Parliament so he can oversee the recovery from the global financial crisis.

"Ladies and gentlemen, imagine another minority Parliament with these three parties trying to form a government, (imagine) the same old constitutional and linguistic quarrels," he said.

Editing by Laura MacInnis

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