OTTAWA – Canada's opposition parties vowed to oust Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government next month after Harper shut down Parliament to avoid almost certain defeat in an imminent confidence vote, but infighting among the one of the parties cast doubt on whether the coalition will hold.
Harper successfully asked the unelected representative of the head of state on Thursday for the power to close down Parliament until Jan. 26, hoping to buy enough time to develop a stimulus package that could prop up the economy.
The prime minister, whose Conservative party won re-election just two months ago, said a budget will be the first order of business when Parliament resumes.
Three opposition parties have united against Harper, charging he has no plan to steer Canada through the global financial crisis. The credit crisis and a global sell-off of commodities have slowed Canada's resource-rich economy, and the finance minister said last week he expects a recession.
The opposition parties, which control the majority of seats in Parliament, had scheduled a confidence vote for Monday in which Harper was virtually certain to lose — a defeat that would have forced his government from power or triggered another election.
Governor General Michaelle Jean, who represents Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, had the power to grant the unusual request to suspend parliament. Had she refused, Harper would have had two choices: step down or face the no-confidence vote.
Both Harper and Jean's spokeswoman declined to comment on the leaders' two-and-a-half hour meeting Thursday.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said the opposition would continue to seek to topple Harper unless he makes a "monumental change" in dealing with the economy and other parties.
"For the first time in the history of Canada the prime minister is running away from the Parliament of Canada," said Dion, who could have been prime minister
But it is Dion who could be ousted as leader of the Liberals before the opposition gets a chance to topple Harper when Parliament resumes. Liberal Jim Karygiannis called his Liberal leader a disaster on Thursday and said Dion should step down. Dion suffered one of the worst defeats in the party's history in the October election and vowed afterward he would step down in May once a new Liberal leader is chosen.
His departure could come before that. The opposition was embarrassed by Dion's televised response to Harper on Wednesday. Dion's English is awkward and his address was beset by technical woes. It was delivered almost an hour late and the fuzzy quality of the production had Canadian Broadcasting Corp. anchor Peter Mansbridge cracking: "It kind of looked like they shot it with a cell phone."
Constitutional scholar and Queen's University political scientist Ned Franks said Jean's decision might have been different had the coalition had a stronger leader. Jean probably considered whether the coalition was a credible alternative to Harper, he said.
"Unless you get a warm fuzzy feeling for good-willed ineptness it wasn't a good performance," Franks said of Dion. "What is the likelihood that he would even last five months?"
Harper needs the support of 12 opposition lawmakers to avoid being toppled in a confidence vote next month and some lawmakers will consider breaking ranks with their party after hearing from angry constituents.
"The issue," said Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, "is whether the Liberals can hang together."
Bob Rae could replace Dion if the leader leaves earlier than scheduled. Rae is running to replace Dion as Liberal leader in May and he's a strong supporter of the coalition. Rae blasted Harper's methods as undemocratic.
"I frankly don't regard his government as legitimate any more," said Rae. "His government is there because he avoided the will of Parliament."
Opposition New Democrat leader Jack Layton said Harper was "trying to lock the door of Parliament so that the elected people cannot speak. He's trying to save his job."
Analysts said a governor general has never been asked to suspend parliament to delay an ouster vote when it was clear the government didn't have the confidence of a majority of legislators.
Harper's Conservative Party was re-elected Oct. 14 with a strengthened minority government, but still must rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois, which together control a majority of parliament's 308 seats, signed a pact agreeing to vote Monday to oust Harper and setting the structure for their proposed coalition government.
The opposition was also outraged by a government proposal to scrap public subsidies for political parties, something the opposition groups rely on more than the Conservatives. Although that proposal was withdrawn, the opposition has continued to seek Harper's ouster, saying he has lost the trust and confidence of parliament.
Analysts have called Harper's proposal a colossal mistake that unified the opposition against him. They also called it a defining moment for the prime minister.
Robert Bothwell, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto, said Harper damaged himself and the country. Bothwell criticized the move to suspend parliament.
"Canada looks terrible. It looks ridiculous. It makes nonsense of our constitution," he said, adding that the move set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for any prime minister facing defeat to follow suit.
Wiseman said Jean's decision strengthened the office of the prime minister at the expense of the popularly elected Parliament.
"It's not a good day for parliamentary democracy," Wiseman said.