OTTAWA (Reuters) - The upstart left-leaning New Democrats hit new heights in opinion polls on Wednesday, further shaking up Canada’s election race and making the outcome almost impossible to predict.
The unexpected surge could split the center-left vote and hand the ruling Conservatives a majority in the May 2 election. Or it could give the NDP a chance of forming its first government, in coalition with the once-mighty yet now faltering Liberals.
An online poll by Angus Reid for the Toronto Star put the Conservatives on 35 percent, well below the number needed to guarantee a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
The New Democrats, mounting an ambitious campaign to replace what they say is a broken political system, were on 30 percent with the Liberals trailing far behind on 22 percent.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been in power for five years with minority governments, says he needs a majority to end the political uncertainly in Canada and allow him to press ahead with his low-tax policies.
The New Democrats and the Liberals, who started the campaign in second place, are fighting for the same segment of the electorate and if the struggle becomes too intense, it could divide voters and hand a decisive win to the right-of-center Conservatives.
“The possibility of a majority mandate for the Conservatives hinges on voter turnout and on the way the center-left vote will split in the ridings (electoral districts) that are being defended by Liberal incumbents,” Angus Reid said in a release.
A daily tracking poll by Nanos Research put support for the Conservatives at 37.8 percent with the New Democrats on 27.8. The Liberals, who have ruled Canada for more years than any other party, were trailing with 22.9 percent.
The Nanos poll -- which showed a leap in backing for the New Democrats -- also suggests that a majority is currently out of reach for the Conservatives.
Harper says that if he does not get a majority, the opposition parties will defeat him in the House of Commons at the first possible opportunity and then try to create what he calls a reckless and unstable coalition.
When the Liberals were in second place, party leader Michael Ignatieff denied he had plans for a coalition.
New Democrat leader Jack Layton has consistently said he is prepared to work with any party to advance his agenda, which includes boosting the corporate tax rate, increasing pensions and introducing a cap-and-trade system to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman