December 6, 2008 / 8:45 PM / in 9 years

Canadian opposition leader faces pressure to quit

TORONTO (Reuters) - The leader of Canada’s main opposition party faced a growing chorus of calls on Saturday to step aside immediately just two days after he looked poised to take power in the country as head of a center-left coalition.

<p>Liberal Leader Stephane Dion (L) and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton (R) greet supporters during a pro-coalition government rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Cassese</p>

Members of Stephane Dion’s Liberal Party and editorials called for his quick ouster after Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a rare suspension of Parliament, allowing his Conservative government to avoid being defeated in a confidence vote.

Concerns about Dion’s ability to keep leading the Liberals -- and the multiparty coalition formed to defeat the Harper government over its response to the economic crisis -- intensified as Canadians gathered at raucous rallies across the country Saturday in support of both sides in the battle.

The most prominent call for a speedy exit came from former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, who said Dion had become an obstacle who had bound the party to the coalition with the left-wing New Democratic Party with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, which wants to take Quebec out of Canada.

“I believe the first step for my party is to replace Stephane Dion as leader with someone whose first job is to rebuild the Liberal Party, rather than leading a coalition with the NDP,” Manley wrote in an op-ed column in the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Dion, 53, had agreed to step aside after the party’s dismal showing in the October 14 election, which saw Harper’s Conservatives returned with a stronger minority. But he said he would remain leader until a new one is chosen in early May.

DEMAND FOR STIMULUS PLAN

Last week, when they announced the formation of the coalition to defeat Harper, the opposition leaders said Dion, who sometimes struggles in English, would become prime minister after winning a vote in the House of Commons.

The opposition parties were angry that a government economic update contained no major stimulus to boost the economy and head off job losses. The were also outraged that Harper said he would cut public funding for their parties. That measure has since been rescinded.

After Governor General Michaelle Jean -- the acting head of state -- agreed on Thursday to Harper’s request to shut down Parliament until January 26, questions arose over the coalition’s ability to remain intact until then.

Much has been made of Dion’s taped response to Harper’s televised address to the nation on Wednesday. It arrived late at the major networks, in the wrong format for broadcast and in similar quality to a home video.

Polls have shown increased support for Harper in the past week, as he tried to hammer home the message that the Liberals signed a “deal with the devil,” meaning the separatist Bloc.

“At a time of heightened political tension and economic crisis, the Liberals cannot afford Dion as a lame duck, or a dead duck,” the Toronto Star said in an editorial.

For his part, Dion remained tight-lipped about his future at a noisy rally alongside NDP leader Jack Layton in support of the coalition in downtown Toronto on Saturday.

But on Friday, a top contender for Dion’s job, Michael Ignatieff, said the party had begun to discuss ways to quicken its leadership process amid the national drama.

“What the party is discussing is whether there are ways in which the leadership race can be accelerated in such a way that we can present clear alternatives to the country,” he told CBC television.

Editing by Eric Walsh

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