OTTAWA — Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down Parliament Thursday in an unprecedented attempt to keep his government in power, fending off a no-confidence vote he was all but certain to lose.
With the move, which comes less than two months after he won re-election, Harper hopes to buy enough time to develop a stimulus package that could prop up the economy.
Had his request been rejected by Governor General Michaelle Jean, who represents Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, the prime minister would have had two choices: step down or face the vote on Monday.
Three opposition parties united against Harper, saying he has failed to insulate Canada from the global financial crisis. The credit crisis and a global selloff of commodities have slowed Canada's resource-rich economy, and the finance minister said last week he expects a recession.
"For the first time in the history of Canada, the prime minister is running away from the Parliament of Canada," said Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who headed the opposition movement against Harper.
The past several days have been filled with political turmoil, as the Liberals and New Democrats worked on a plan to form a coalition, with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, to replace Harper's Conservative-led government. Such a turn would also be unprecedented move in Canadian politics.
"The public is very frustrated by the current situation in Parliament, and we are all responsible for it," Harper said. "Today's decision will give us an opportunity — and I'm talking about all the parties — to focus on the economy and work together." The first item of business when Parliament resumes will be the budget, he said.
Jack Layton, leader of the New Democrats, said the shutdown only delays Harper's inevitable defeat.
In the last election, Harper's Conservative Party failed to win a majority in the House of Commons. But in contrast to the relative indifference to the elections two months ago, the current stalemate has provoked a passionate debate in the country online, in public and through radio call-in shows.
Some Conservative members suggest the coalition members are near-traitors. "That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine," Bob Dechert, a Conservative member said on Wednesday, echoing a refrain widely heard in Harper's home province of Alberta.
The opposition coalition said Thursday it would continue with its effort to form a government despite the closure of Parliament and condemned Harper's tactics as undemocratic.