In Canada, Harper's government in crisis

Just seven weeks after the prime minister's party won reelection, the Conservative administration could be toppled.

Chris Wattie/Reuters
Selling the stimulus: Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, pitched his recovery plan to the nation Wednesday night.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fighting for his political life, launching a public relations blitz after a coalition of opposition parties formed an alliance this week, vowing to topple the Conservative minority government reelected only seven weeks ago.

In a rare address to the nation Wednesday night, the prime minister pleaded with Canadians to support his government. He also lashed out at the newly formed coalition between the Liberal and New Democratic parties, which hope to form a new government in the next few weeks.

"The opposition is attempting to impose this deal without your say, without your consent, and without your vote," Mr. Harper said during the televised address. "This is no time for backroom deals.... It is a time for Canada's government to focus on the economy and, specifically, measures for the upcoming budget."

Harper was expected to meet Thursday with Canada's governor general to ask her to suspend Parliament, thereby delaying a vote in the House of Commons that could strip his party of power.

The political crisis began last week after the Conservative Party unveiled its first economic policy platform since being reelected seven weeks ago. The opposition parties unleashed a torrent of criticism, charging that the government was unfit to rule because it failed to include a stimulus package for the flagging economy.

After accusing the government of political opportunism by pushing through an ideological agenda during a time of weakness for the opposition parties, on Monday the opposition parties signed an official pact to align.

Seven weeks ago, on election night, Harper indicated he planned to work with his rivals – much as President-elect Barack Obama is tapping moderate Republicans for his cabinet – to manage the country's economic woes. Unlike the Democrats, Harper's Conservatives failed to capture a majority in Parliament.

The fallout over the crisis has sparked torment not seen in Canadian politics since 1926, when a coalition government seized power from the ruling Liberal Party. The current crisis points to further deterioration of the country's once-stable parliamentary democracy, which has been unraveling for several years in step with party fragmentation.

Some observers pin the blame for the current trouble directly on Harper. "It's like the opposition parties were forced to try to knock this guy off,'' explains Nelson Wiseman, a professor of Canadian politics at the University of Toronto. "They had no choice. It's like 'If we don't stand up to him now, we're dead ducks.' "

Included in the government's economic policies last week were proposals that would revoke federal employees' right to strike, clamp down on pay equity, and cancel public subsidies for political parties – a move that would disproportionately benefit the ruling Conservatives.

"Harper has really betrayed the public trust by not acting like a statesman," says Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. "To have done this at a time when there are people losing their jobs, when the economy is this bad – it's shocking. He really assumed that the opposition parties were so weakened, he could get away with anything. He obviously miscalculated."

Last weekend, the Conservatives tried to squelch mounting opposition by reversing some of their economic policies – to no avail.

The Conservatives' fate now depends on how Governor General Michaelle Jean decides to handle the situation when she meets with the prime minister. She has three options: calling an election should the Conservatives lose a vote of confidence in the House of Commons on Monday; allowing the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition – with the backing of the Bloc Québécois – to take power; or allowing the Conservatives to suspend Parliament until next month, effectively defusing the political showdown.

Whatever the outcome, some pundits say the government is heading for a rocky and short reign. "We're likely to see an extended period of political mayhem,'' Professor Young says. "Even if Harper somehow manages to hang on, it's going to be a very acrimonious parliament."

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