TORONTO – Canada's prime minister on Sunday triggered an early election, dissolving Parliament in a bid to bolster his party's grip on power in a vote next month that will be the country's third national ballot in four years.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he expects the Oct. 14 vote to produce another minority government but recent polls show the Conservatives could win the majority they need to rule without help from opposition parties.
Analysts said Harper's party has a better shot of winning now than if they had waited until being forced into a vote later when the Canadian economy might be worse off or after Canadians could be influenced by the U.S. presidential election results.
The Conservatives unseated the Liberal Party in 2006 after nearly 13 years in power but as a minority government have been forced to rely on opposition lawmakers to pass legislation and adopt budgets.
Electoral legislation that Harper helped enact after he came to power in 2006 fixed the date for the next election in October 2009. But a loophole allows the prime minister to ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament, which Harper did Sunday after signaling in recent weeks that he was leaning toward an early election.
Harper said he is running on economic issues and has stressed his opposition to an energy tax proposed by the Liberals.
"Between now and Oct. 14, Canadians will choose a government to look out for their interests at a time of global economic trouble," Harper said on Sunday.
"They will choose between direction or uncertainty; between common sense or risky experiments; between steadiness or recklessness."
Liberal leader Stephane Dion acknowledged his party faced an uphill battle in the election campaign.
"I love it. I love to be the underdog. I love being underestimated," said Dion, who many expect will be removed as leader if the Liberals lose the election.
Dion said the election offers a stark choice between his party and the "most Conservative government in our history."
The Liberals have traditionally been the party in power in Canada, forming the government for more than two-thirds of the last 100 years. Analysts say Harper is intent on destroying the Liberal brand and wants to instill conservative values in Canada.
Dion was a part of Canada's Liberal government that opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and turned down Washington's request to send troops. Harper supported the Iraq war when he was in the opposition.
Harper and his officials say they expect the Oct. 14 election to produce another minority government. But analysts argue that the prime minister is saying that because he does not want to stir up Canadians who worry a majority Conservative government would move the country further right with policies similar to those of the U.S. Republican Party.
Stephen Clarkson, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said some Canadians fear a Harper majority.
"His proclivity is to be the furthest right in Canadian history and that has to be managed," Clarkson said.
Robert Bothwell, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto, agreed and said Harper's goals in calling an early election are political.
"Harper is going for a majority government. That's really the only issue," he said.
Observers also say Harper wanted a ballot ahead of the U.S. election. Bothwell said if Democrat Barack Obama surges in the next month in the United States, it will help Canada's opposition Liberal party.
"It will be bad for Harper. Canadian politics don't exactly mirror those of the United States but if something happens in the United States it will find an echo in Canada," Bothwell said.
The Conservatives now fill 127 of the 308 seats in Parliament. The Liberals have 95, Bloc Quebecois 48, the New Democrats 30 and the Greens have one seat. Three seats are held by independents, and four are vacant.
Recent polls indicate the Conservatives are leading and have a chance to win a majority.
An Environics Research survey said 38 percent of Canadians would vote for the Conservatives and 28 percent for the Liberals. Some 19 percent backed the New Democrats, 8 percent the Bloc Quebecois and 7 percent the Green party. A total of 2,505 people were surveyed by telephone from Aug. 29 to Sept. 4. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Saturday that if the Conservatives win the next election, the government will lower personal taxes to make them more competitive with rates in the U.S. over the next few years.
Since becoming prime minister, Harper has extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. Canada has lost 97 soldiers and as the death toll approaches 100 the mission could become an issue in the campaign. The military announced the latest death on Sunday.
Harper also pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dion, a former environment minister who named his dog Kyoto, wants to increase taxes on greenhouse gas emitters. Dion has moved his party to the crowded left in Canada by staking his leadership on a "Green Shift" tax plan.
The Conservatives have been targeting Dion's plan in television and radio ads, saying it would kill jobs and drive up energy costs even higher than the current high levels. Dion has said he would offset the higher energy prices by cutting income taxes.
Dion hasn't had much success selling the plan to Canadians, many of whom have viewed him as a weak leader ever since he surprisingly won leadership of the party in late 2006.