Canada's latest election campaign kicked off Saturday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging voters to give his Conservatives an outright majority to stave off a "reckless" left-of-center coalition government that would pose a danger to the economy.
Opposition parties brought down Harper's government in a no confidence vote Friday over ethics issues, triggering an election that polls show the Conservatives will win but again without a parliamentary majority.
The main opposition Liberal party on Saturday ruled out forming any coalition government, but Harper angrily accused Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff of being willing to seize power illegitimately by allying with the two other opposition parties even if the Conservatives win the most votes in the May 2 election.
This will be Canada's fourth national election in seven years, reflecting the failure of either major party to obtain a parliamentary majority and leaving successive governments dependent on opposition votes to stay in power. The three opposition parties combined held 160 seats in the outgoing Parliament, while the Conservatives held 143.
There has been talk that the left-of-center parties might join forces in a coalition if Harper wins another minority government.
But Ignatieff emphasized on the campaign's opening day that the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the election should be asked to form the government. He said that if the Liberals lead in seats but lack a majority he would not try to form a coalition with the leftist New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
Leslie Church, a spokeswoman for Ignatieff, later elaborated in an email to The Associated Press that the Liberals also would not try to form a left-of-center coalition if Harper's Conservatives win the most seats but not a majority.
"Coalition is off the table," Church said. "It's an unequivocal ruling out of a coalition. What you see is what you get — no NDP or Bloc members in the Cabinet of a Liberal government. Simple, clear, straightforward."
But Harper said the Liberals can't be trusted to keep their word and warned that a "reckless opposition coalition" would pose a danger to the economy.
"Their record is clear," he said. "Deny it in an election, then do it afterward. Let me be perfectly clear: unless Canadians elect a stable national majority government, Michael Ignatieff will form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois.
"Imagine a coalition of arch-centralists and Quebec sovereigntists trying to work together. The only thing they'll be able to agree on is to spend more money and to raise taxes to pay for it."
The opposition tried to form a coalition before, weeks after Harper's Conservatives won the most seats but not a majority in the last election in 2008.
But before he could be defeated in a no confidence vote, Harper shut down Parliament and successfully whipped up public opposition against the coalition. The Conservatives accused the Liberals of treason for uniting with the Bloc Quebecois, a party that seeks independence for Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec.
Harper is now once again trying to marshal public sentiment against a possible coalition government. Harper said the way to avoid a coalition is to give the Conservatives an outright majority. In past elections, Harper's Conservatives did not explicitly ask for a majority government to avoid raising fears among Canadians that they would implement a hidden right-wing agenda.
Harper appears to be gambling that an election now will confound conventional wisdom and hand him the majority in Parliament that has eluded him through his five-year tenure as prime minister.
Harper spoke after formally informing Governor General David Johnston, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II as Canada's head of state, that Parliament should be dissolved.
Harper is counting on the economy to help him win re-election.
Canada has outperformed other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis, recovering almost all the 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.
Harper said only a stable majority government can complete Canada's economic recovery and keep taxes down. He urged Canadians not to take the risk of voting for the opposition.
"This would be crazy given the circumstances Canada faces, given the strong position we're emerging from. To undertake that kind of risk would be in my judgment completely the wrong track for the country," Harper said.
While the Conservatives will try to focus on the economy and scare Canadians with coalition talk, the opposition will try to keep the focus on the government's recent ethics problems.
"For the first time in our history, a prime minister was found guilty by the House of Commons of contempt for our parliamentary institutions and that's why we're having an election," Ignatieff told an Ottawa rally.
"We will be asking Canadians to choose between a prime minister that shows scant respect for our institutions and a Liberal team that believes profoundly that the first thing you expect of a government is respect for democratic principles."
The Liberals were originally going to bring down the government over corporate tax cuts and spending billions on new fighter jets, but recent ethical issues helped them make inroads in furthering the image of Harper as an autocrat who shuts Parliament when it suits him.
The trigger that brought the Harper government down Friday in a 156-145 no confidence vote were allegations — supported Monday by a Parliamentary committee — that Harper has acted in contempt of Parliament by failing to disclose the full financial details of his tougher crime legislation, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets.
There are other issues as well. Last week, Harper asked police to look into the activities of Bruce Carson, a former key aide. Carson, 66, is accused of using the access he had to senior members of the government to lobby on behalf of a company affiliated with his 22-year-old fiancee, a former escort.
The opposition parties are also united against Harper's latest budget plan which they say lavishes tax cuts on big business while doing little for average Canadians.
The election marks the first faceoff between Harper and Ignatieff, who became the Liberal leader in December 2008.
Ignatieff, 63, is one of Canada's leading intellectuals: an author, historian and TV panel regular in Britain before going into politics.
Harper, 51, is a career politician, a master strategist who has spent the last five years emphasizing a more conservative Canadian identity and moving Canada incrementally to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, increased spending on the military and made Arctic sovereignty a priority.