September 5, 2008 / 6:06 PM / in 9 years

Harper to call election for Oct 14

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday will trigger an October 14 general election campaign, after 2-1/2 years at the helm of a minority Conservative government, a spokeswoman said on Friday.

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

The national vote will mark Canada’s third election in four years and comes at a time when the economy is struggling to cope with a slowdown in the United States, the country’s largest trading partner.

Two issues are expected to dominate the campaign: the softening Canadian economy and a carbon tax plan proposed by Harper’s chief opponent. Polls indicate a vote now would result in another Conservative minority.

The spokeswoman said that at 8:15 a.m. EDT on Sunday Harper would visit Governor-General Michaelle Jean and ask her to dissolve Parliament formally so an election could be held.

Jean is the representative in Canada of the head of state, Queen Elizabeth. Her approval is considered a formality.

Harper was supposed to wait until October 2009, the date set for the next election under a law brought in by the Conservatives.

He says he wants an election now because Parliament has become dysfunctional, a strategy that prompted many commentators and rivals to accuse him of cynicism.

“Stephen Harper wants to rush into an election before Canadians can realize how little he has done to prepare our country to deal with the slowdown of the economy,” said Stephane Dion, leader of the opposition Liberal Party.

Growth so far this year has been anemic and the crucial manufacturing sector -- focused in parts of eastern Canada where Harper needs to pick up votes -- is struggling.

Harper, elected in late January 2006 on a right-leaning platform that promised to crack down on crime and cut taxes, has said little about his election platform.

That said, the Conservatives will strongly attack Dion’s carbon tax proposal. Dion initially said the plan, designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would be revenue neutral.

But amid concerns about the impact on professionals who use a lot of fuel, he modified the idea on Wednesday by offering tax breaks and subsidies.

“I think it’s a crazy time for the country to take risks,” Harper said in response.

The Conservatives regularly mock Dion, a former academic from French-speaking Canada who sometimes has trouble making himself understood in English.

“To get the message across you have to have someone that people are willing to listen to and this is the big question -- will the Liberals have that person?” said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal.

Dion, an outsider, surprisingly won a Liberal leadership race in late 2006 and has little support among legislators.

Many Conservatives -- and some Liberals -- agree Dion could be a major liability for his party.

Yet despite their many advantages, the Conservatives have rarely managed to record more than 36 percent of public support, short of the 40 percent needed for a majority under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

“I haven’t seen anything to suggest that there would be a significant change in the current political environment,” said pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research.

Part of the reason is continuing voter uncertainty about Harper, an aloof and rather wooden figure who opponents say is harboring an extremist agenda.

“We need to win against the most right-wing prime minister in the history of our country ... Stephen Harper wants to give George W. Bush a third term in Ottawa,” Dion said this week.

The Conservatives, who point to their record as evidence this charge is nonsense, are very strong in rural areas and western Canada. Yet they have made no headway at all in the three main cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Only one prime minister -- Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s -- has won two successive minority governments.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer; Editing by Frank McGurty

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