OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, battling for re-election in October amid a slowing economy and high-profile departures of key officials, is taking a hard line on security and the tactic is resonating in a region that could keep him in power.
The ruling Conservatives are tied in polls with the opposition Liberals and critics say Harper is using security fears to bolster his election prospects, a charge his team denies.
Canada has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Harper refers to a “war” on jihadists, calling them a menace who want to destroy Canadian society.
In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama says the threat posed by Islamic State should not be exaggerated and insists it and other radical Islamist groups do not pose an existential threat to the United States.
“Jihadist terrorism is not a future possibility, it is a present reality. Violent jihadism is not simply a danger somewhere else. It seeks to harm us here,” Harper said last month as he unveiled a tough new anti-terrorism bill.
In the aftermath of two fatal attacks on soldiers in Quebec and outside Parliament last October - both by suspected “lone wolf” converts to Islam - the strong words are resonating in the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec. The province traditionally tilts more to the left than the rest of Canada and has been cool to Harper since he took power in 2006.
A Leger Marketing poll last week showed 74 percent of Quebecers backed the anti-terrorism bill.
“I think it’s the first time in many years that a wide majority of Quebecers actually agree with a Conservative government on something ... it is a major shift,” Leger pollster Christian Bourque said.
“Part of the reason is that for the first time Quebecers feel threatened by terrorism,” he added, citing the killing of the soldier in the province.
The draft legislation, which Harper announced in a political style rally near Toronto, gives Canada’s intelligence services sweeping new powers to disrupt plots at home, for example by interfering with travel plans. Anyone promoting terrorism faces prosecution “whether in a basement or a mosque,” Harper said.
Rob MacDonald, a 60-year-old retiree in Quebec’s main city, Montreal, said he felt that only the Conservatives could keep the country safe. “I‘m not confident at all in the opposition. I think they’re compromised,” he said.
Gains in Quebec could make a big difference in October, given that senior Conservative Party members privately say Harper’s bid to win a fourth consecutive election will be difficult.
Quebec currently has 75 of the 308 seats in the federal House of Commons. In 2008, the Conservatives won 10 of those seats as they gained 21.7 percent of the votes cast in Quebec.
In 2011, they captured only five seats as their backing in the province slipped to 16.5 percent.
Bourque puts Conservative support in Quebec at close to 20 percent while some other polling firms say it is even higher.
A CROP poll for La Presse newspaper on Thursday put Conservative support in the vote-rich Quebec City region at 38 percent, up from 30 percent last August.
To be sure, Harper is not assured yet of electoral gains in Quebec and most of those polled on the streets of Montreal expressed caution about his focus on security.
“I don’t feel like I‘m getting the full story so I get very bothered by them wanting to (boost) their powers for something they can’t effectively prove to me,” said sales clerk Adrien Rheault, 24.
Harper’s new tough line could hurt the opposition left-leaning New Democrats, who hold most of Quebec’s 75 seats in the federal Parliament. The New Democrats are the second largest party in the House of Commons after the Conservatives but trail in the polls.
“I think that you’re looking at a largely political agenda,” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who opposes the anti-terrorism bill, told reporters. “It’s quite clear that Mr. Harper has been playing politics with this file from day one.”
A government source dismissed as “preposterous” the idea that Harper was using the security issue to gain votes.
“If it’s building support for the government I think it’s because people recognize we’re the only party that is credibly going to take on this threat,” the source told Reuters.
The tough talk began as Islamic State gained ground in Iraq and Syria last year and intensified after the two soldiers were killed. The terrorism bill is assured passage given the Conservatives’ majority of seats in parliament.
In recent weeks, Canadian police have arrested four people and charged two others who they said were planning attacks or trying to go to the Middle East to fight for Islamic State.
Officials say around 130 people with Canadian connections - including citizenship or residency - are suspected of a wide range of terrorism-related activities abroad. Of these, 80 are now back in Canada, the government says.
Additional reporting by Mike De Souza in Ottawa; Editing by Frances Kerry