WINDSOR, Ontario (Reuters) - Support for Canada’s leftist New Democratic Party surged to within 6 points of the ruling Conservatives in an opinion poll on Monday that showed Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a tenuous hold on power.
The Conservatives, who hope to get a majority government in the May 2 vote, remain confident of election victory despite the late campaign boost by the New Democrats.
The left-leaning NDP have traditionally trailed both the Conservatives and Liberals. But its appeal has shot up under the leadership of Jack Layton, who supports tax breaks for small businesses and for hiring new employees.
Monday’s EKOS survey of more than 3,000 Canadian voters put support for the NDP at 28 percent, compared to 33.7 percent for the Conservatives and 23.7 percent for the Liberals, who are currently Canada’s largest opposition party.
The NDP would not get more seats in Parliament than the Conservatives -- they could end up with 100 seats while Harper’s party could get 130.
But its gains could make the Conservatives, who won minority governments in both 2006 and 2008, vulnerable to the possibility that the NDP and Liberals could agree to work together and push them from power.
Minority governments require the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation and remain in power.
“It’s hard to imagine a 130-seat diminished (Conservative) government would be able to hold on to power against a clear majority of seats and a major advantage in popular support for the NDP and the Liberals,” EKOS pollster Frank Graves said on the iPolitics.ca website.
Much of the gain has come in Quebec at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, but surveys indicate the NDP gaining a stronger foothold in English-speaking Canada as well.
“The idea that you could have a Jack Layton-led coalition sounds preposterous, but that’s what the numbers suggest,” Graves said in a commentary on the poll.
The NDP, founded in 1961 as a pro-labor party, has governed in several provinces but never won power nationally. In addition to the tax breaks, Layton has backed extra spending on education and environmental and social programs.
The Conservatives have argued throughout the campaign that they need a majority in order to get things done in Ottawa.
Otherwise, they have said the opposition parties would team up and attempt to take power with a coalition government headed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
Harper, in a campaign rally in an NDP-held district in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, singled out the NDP and Layton in attack lines he normally used against the Liberals and joked about the opposition’s changing fortunes.
“It’s not as clear who is supposed to be working for who in this arrangement,” Harper said, referring to any future cooperation by the opposition parties in Parliament.
The Liberals have also stepped up their attacks on the New Democrats, but Ignatieff denied he was caught in a political squeeze between the other parties.
“I feel that I’ve got running room either way,” Ignatieff told reporters in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Layton, talking to reporters before the Ekos survey was released, scoffed at the idea that vote-splitting between his party and the Liberals would end up helping the Conservatives.
“This is the absurd proposal that somehow you don’t really have a choice but to vote for one or other of the two old-line parties,” Layton told reporters in Saint John, New Brunswick.
The EKOS survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
With reporting by Randall Palmer, Janet Guttsman and David Ljunggren; Editing by Laura MacInnis