TORONTO – Canadian politics have hit a turbulent patch that may bring down Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week over corporate tax cuts and alleged abuses of power.
But if an election becomes necessary, Canadians are likely to emerge from it 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.
The double-trigger that may bring him down is the federal budget to be presented to Parliament on Tuesday, and allegations — supported Monday by a Parliamentary committee — that Harper acted in contempt of the house by failing to disclose the full financial details of his tougher crime legislation, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets.
If the budget is defeated, or a no-confidence vote on the contempt charges gets majority support, Harper will have no choice but to call an election, possibly on May 2.
Harper is riding on the perception that the election is pointless because nothing will change.
"Canadians don't want an election, the country doesn't need an election, the thing that all parties should be focusing on is the Canadian economy," Harper said.
It's the economy that he is counting on to win him 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 center-left country, and his plan to cut corporate tax rates in the new budget has given the opposition, led by the left-leaning Liberals, an opening to argue that Canada, despite its economic successes, is running a record deficit that will only worsen if taxes fall.
They are also hammering the prime minister for planning to spend $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.
The opposition has been able to paint 51-year-old Harper as a manipulator who resorts to questionable stratagems to thwart the opposition, most notably his suspension of Parliament for three months last winter to bring about a shift in house committee chairmanships.
And now his opponents have been handed the contempt charges that portray Harper, who has never had a majority since becoming prime minister in 2006, as a highhanded ruler who lacks a popular mandate. No Canadian government has ever been cited for contempt before.
For the budget to be defeated, all three opposition parties would have to vote against it, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty could still include a budgetary carrot on Tuesday to appease at least one of them.
But political analysts believe the opposition has gone too far to back down.
The Liberals have hinted that they will introduce a motion of no confidence later this week, likely bringing together corporate tax cuts and ethical issues. Defeat in a no-confidence motion obliges a government to call an election.
Experts expect Harper to try to keep the focus on his economic record, hoping to be rewarded for steering Canada out of a recession.
If the next step is an election, it will be Harper's third since 2006 and the first for Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader since 2008. He is familiar to some Canadian TV audiences as a public intellectual and human rights advocate, but must now come up with a political manifesto that resonates with voters.