* Ignatieff to quit as Liberal leader, return to teaching
* Caucus to meet next week to discuss leadership
* Liberals are in third place for first time in history
By Claire Sibonney
TORONTO, May 3 (Reuters) - Academic-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff quit as leader of Canada’s once-mighty Liberals on Tuesday after steering his party from opposition to near irrelevance in Monday’s federal election.
The Liberals, the second largest party in the outgoing Parliament, never captured voter attention in a five-week campaign that came to life only toward the end. They finished in a dismal third place for the first time in their history.
“I will not be remaining as leader of this party,” a somber Ignatieff told a news conference the morning after the vote.
Ignatieff’s approval ratings held below that of other party leaders throughout the campaign. The Liberals ended up with 34 seats, down from 77 in the outgoing Parliament, raising questions about the party’s future as well as its leader’s.
“People asked whether the Liberal Party has a future. I think the surest guarantee of a future for the Liberal Party of Canada is four years of Conservative government, four years of NDP opposition,” Ignatieff said.
The Conservatives won a solid majority on Monday, taking 167 or the 308 seats in the House of Commons, and will be in power for four years. The New Democrats surged to take 102 seats and become the official opposition for the first time.
Ignatieff became Liberal leader when the party dumped his predecessor, Stephane Dion, after a poor showing in the 2008 election.
He said it will be up to others to decide whether the Liberals should now join forces with the New Democrats, but made clear his belief that the two parties have different traditions and values.
Ignatieff, a tall, formidable figure with a craggy face and dark bushy eyebrows, was the target of vicious attack ads from the Conservatives, even before the campaign began, saying he was elitist and out of touch.
The ads portrayed him as an outsider who parachuted into Canada in search of power and fame after spending most of his working life in England and the United States.
“Canadians are always surprised to meet me in the flesh because I didn’t turn out to be quite as bad as the ads portrayed me,” he said on Tuesday. “I have no complaint about that (ad campaign) but I would simply say that I think Canadians deserve better from their politics.”
He added: “I leave politics with a strong desire that Canadians are better served in the future.”
Resident in Canada since 2005 after a career spent mostly abroad, Ignatieff seems to prefer opera to hockey, and his attempts to appear folksy have been a challenge.
Ignatieff, who studied and taught at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the London School of Economics, said he would return to teaching.
He is the son of Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff and the grandson of Count Pavel Ignatieff, a minister of education under Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.
Michael Ignatieff was born on May 12, 1947, in Toronto. He is married to Hungarian-born Zsuzsanna Zsohar and has two children from a previous marriage.
The Liberal caucus will meet next week to proceed on choosing the party’s next leader. (Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Janet Guttsman in Ottawa; editing by Rob Wilson)