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Canada PM wins suspension of Parliament

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, battling to stay in power, persuaded the country’s acting head of state on Thursday to suspend Parliament so he could avoid being ousted by opposition parties next week.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at Rideau Hall in Ottawa December 4, 2008 following his meeting with Governor General Michaelle Jean. Harper, battling to stay in power, persuaded the country's acting head of state on Thursday to suspend Parliament so he could avoid being ousted by opposition parties next week. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Governor General Michaelle Jean -- the representative of Queen Elizabeth, the head of state -- agreed to Harper’s request to shut down Parliament until Jan 26. Parliament was reconvened just weeks ago after Harper’s Conservatives were returned to power with a minority government in the Oct. 14 election.

Harper’s request for suspension was unprecedented. No prime minister had ever asked for Parliament to be suspended so soon after an election, and no prime minister had asked for a suspension to avoid a confidence vote in the House of Commons.

Such a vote had been set for Monday and the Conservatives almost certainly would have lost it, and faced being replaced by a coalition of opposition parties without an election.

After meeting with the governor general, Harper reaffirmed his promise to present a budget on Jan 27 and called on opposition legislators to work with him over the next few weeks to tackle the effects of the global financial crisis.

“Today’s decision will give us an opportunity -- and I’m talking about all the parties -- to focus on the economy and to work together,” he told reporters.

The opposition Liberals, New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois -- all to the left of the Conservatives -- had signed a deal to defeat Harper and install a Liberal-New Democratic coalition government. The Bloc, which wants to take French-speaking Quebec out of Canada, pledged to back the coalition’s budgets and general policy direction.

Harper’s gambit was the latest development in a constitutional crisis that erupted last week after he tried to cut public financing for political parties, a move that would have hit the opposition parties particularly hard.

The opposition parties also say they are angry because Ottawa has not dealt adequately with the economic crisis.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who would have become prime minister under the opposition coalition’s plan to replace Harper, said nothing he heard from Harper on Thursday had changed his mind about trying to bring down the government.

However, he did appear to open the door a crack to not proceeding with the plan to topple the government.

“This is about replacing Stephen Harper unless he made a monumental change,” he told a news conference. “It means a recovery plan, a real recovery plan.

His coalition partners showed no such opening, but Harper would only need one party’s tacit support to survive.

“We can’t trust him,” New Democrat leader Jack Layton said of Harper, telling reporters the prime minister had locked the doors of Parliament. “It’s a sad day.”

And another senior Liberal -- Bob Rae, who is bidding to replace Dion at the helm of the party -- predicted the opposition would go ahead and bring Harper down early next year over the budget. “You can run but you can’t hide,” he said.

Both sides vowed to take their campaign to Canadians over the next seven weeks.

Harper went on national television on Wednesday evening to denounce the Liberals and New Democrats.

“At a time like this, a coalition with separatists cannot help Canada,” Harper said.

In his comments on Thursday he was more conciliatory toward the opposition but declared that he would never put himself in a position where he had to depend on the Bloc for his mandate.

Conservative legislators have openly said the opposition members of Parliament are trying to mount a coup and one suggested they were traitors.

Media organizations say they are receiving an unprecedented number of comments from Canadians. While many people are unhappy with the idea of Bloc support for a government, others condemn Harper for triggering the crisis.

“Whether he contrives an exit from his immediate travails over the confidence vote, the Harper era appears to be approaching the end. But before that happens, there is a danger Canadian unity will be harmed,” the influential Globe and Mail newspaper said in its lead editorial on Thursday.

The Conservatives have launched a full-scale campaign to demonize what they call “the separatist coalition”.

An early sign that their pressure might be working came on Wednesday, when Liberal legislator Frank Valeriote told the Guelph Mercury newspaper that he wanted to work with Harper to deal with the economy rather than joining a coalition.

Additional reporting by Louise Egan