OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday called a parliamentary election for Oct. 19, kicking off a marathon 11-week campaign likely to focus on a stubbornly sluggish economy and his decade in power.
Polls indicate Harper’s right-of-center Conservative Party, which has been in office since 2006, could well lose its majority in the House of Commons.
That would leave him at the mercy of the two main center-left opposition parties, which could unite to bring him down. Minority governments in Canada rarely last more than 18 months.
Harper, 56, says only he can be trusted to manage an economy struggling to cope with the after-effects of a global economic slowdown and a plunge in the price of oil, a major Canadian export. Opposition parties favored “disastrous” policies such as higher spending and more debt, he said.
Five of Canada’s last six election campaigns have lasted the minimum length of just over five weeks.
The Conservatives have deep pockets and the campaign - the longest since the 1870s - could boost their chances by allowing them to run a wave of attack ads. Opposition parties say this is an abuse of the system.
Harper said the long campaign would let voters properly examine the parties’ platforms and played down the idea he was trying to outspend rivals.
“In terms of the fact we are a better financed political party, a better organized political party and better supported by Canadians, those advantages exist whether we call this campaign or not,” he said after launching the election.
Most recent polls show the Conservatives slightly trailing the left-leaning New Democrats (NDP), who have never governed Canada. The Liberals of Justin Trudeau trail in third.
The NDP said the early call was a cynical ploy that would do nothing for the economy. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said Harper had presided over the worst economic growth record of any prime minister since 1960.
“Clearly, Mr. Harper, your plan isn’t working ... we will kick-start the economy and get Canadians back to work,” he said.
The NDP and the Liberals say Canada needs a change from Harper, who has cut taxes, increased military spending, toughened criminal laws and streamlined regulations governing the energy industry.
Ipsos Public Affairs pollster John Wright said the race was “very competitive” and chances of the Conservatives winning any kind of government were 50 percent, down from 88 percent last year.
With additional reporting by Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Editing by Diane Craft and Sandra Maler