OTTAWA (Reuters) - Pime Minister Stephen Harper is raising the specter of a traumatic referendum on Quebec independence and other painful constitutional battles as he seeks a decisive win in the May 2 federal election.
Polls show the Harper’s Conservatives are set to win the most seats in the House of Commons, but may fall short of a majority.
Harper says that if he only wins a minority, he will quickly be voted out of power by the three opposition parties.
If opposition parties were to take over, the result would be an unstable coalition that would create a “gaping black hole” threatening Canada’s stability, Harper said on Wednesday.
“Everything they’re talking about points to higher spending and tax hikes. It points to renewed fighting over referendums, constitutions and national unity,” Harper told reporters during a campaign stop in Quebec.
Quebec held a referendum on splitting away from Canada in 1995. The separatists lost by the thinnest of margins, but only after the country suffered a near nervous breakdown.
This election will be the fourth in less than seven years in Canada, the largest exporter of energy to the United States.
Harper says he need a majority to fend off the prospect of “political instability, repeated elections, another referendum ... and stumbling around on national unity”.
The Conservatives won power in 2006 and retained it in 2008, both times with minority governments that meant they needed the support of opposition legislators to stay in power.
Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal party, said on Wednesday that if the Conservatives got the most seats but less than a majority, then it would be up to Harper to compromise enough on the budget to get it passed.
“He has an obligation to present a budget that has the confidence of the House of Commons,” he told a news conference in Saint John, New Brunswick. “What does he think he is here, the King?”
The National Post had quoted him as saying in an interview in March that he would vote against a Conservative budget if it was the same one the government presented in March, but Ignatieff said on Wednesday he would read the budget before deciding whether to oppose it.
He insists he would not create a coalition with the New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois but he did say on Tuesday that if Harper were defeated, the obvious next step would be to see if the largest opposition party could gain enough support to govern.
Harper said the remarks reinforced his conviction he would be ousted if he only had a minority, and said the three opposition parties had “very dangerous and conflicting views on national unity and constitutional matters.”
In late 2008 Harper proposed eliminating public subsidies for political parties, which would have crippled the three opposition parties. The Liberals and the New Democrats reacted by signing a deal to bring down Harper and govern with Bloc support.
Harper accused the three of creating a coalition and escaped by having Parliament suspended.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Janet Guttsman