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Spring election looms in Canada

By ROB GILLIES
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 10:14 PM

TORONTO -- A spring election in Canada is all but certain after opposition parties said Tuesday they will vote against Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's latest budget plan.

The government needs the support of at least one party to stay in power but all three opposition parties in the Parliament immediately rejected Harper's budget after it was announced.

A vote on the budget is expected either Thursday or Friday. If the budget is defeated, an election will be triggered and probably will be held on May 2 or May 9.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said there was "no chance" the budget would be amended, setting the stage for Canada's fourth election in seven years.

Flaherty appeared to offer concessions to the left-of-center New Democrats, including help for low-income seniors. But New Democrat leader Jack Layton said the party can't support the budget in its current form, joining the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in rejecting the budget.

Canada is likely to emerge from an election with little changed. Opinion polls expect Harper's Conservative Party to win, but not outright, meaning he will continue to govern with a minority in Parliament, dependent on opposition votes to stay afloat.

Harper might be gambling that an election now will confound conventional wisdom and hand him the majority in Parliament that has eluded him through his five-year tenure as prime minister. He is counting on the economy to help him win re-election.

Canada has outperformed other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis, recovering all jobs lost during the recession while its banking sector remains intact. It avoided a property crash, and most economists expect 2010 growth to come in at 3 percent.

But Harper is a center-right prime minister in a traditionally liberal country, and his plan to cut corporate tax rates has given the opposition, led by the left-leaning Liberals, an opening to argue that Canada is running a record deficit that will only worsen if taxes are cut.

Opposition parties also are hammering the prime minister for planning to spend at least $9 billion on 65 American-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters - one of the biggest military purchases in Canadian history - plus at least $5 billion more in maintenance costs.

Harper's Conservatives hold 143 seats in Parliament. The Liberals have 77, the New Democrats 36 and the Bloc Quebecois 47.

An election would offer the first opportunity to witness a faceoff between Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff since Ignatieff took over the Liberal Party in December 2008.

Ignatieff, 63, is one of Canada's leading intellectuals: an author, historian and TV panel regular before going into politics. He must now come up with a political manifesto that resonates with voters.

Harper, 51, is a career politician who has spent the last five years emphasizing a more conservative Canadian identity and moving Canada incrementally to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, increased spending on the military and made Arctic sovereignty a priority.

He has called Canada an emerging "energy super power" in reference to Alberta's oil sands deposits, the second largest oil reserves in the world, and has avoided enacting environmental legislation that would hurt the sector.

In foreign policy, he's extended Canada's role in Afghanistan and he's been a staunch ally of Israel's right wing government.

The opposition has made inroads in painting Harper as high-handed and attacking the government for its alleged ethical shortcomings. They allege his government acted in contempt of Parliament by failing to disclose the full financial details of his tougher crime legislation, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets. A Parliamentary committee reached that conclusion on Monday.

Last week, Harper asked police to look into the activities of Bruce Carson, a key former aide. Carson, 66, is accused of using the access he had to senior members of the government to lobby on behalf of a company affiliated with his 22-year-old fiancee, a former escort.

Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, said Harper might want an election now before the ethical issues resonate with the public any further and weaken support in the coming months.

© 2011 The Associated Press