Separatists push Canada closer to early election

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OTTAWA, Sep 22 (Reuters) Canada shifted closer to an early general election today when the leader of a major opposition party threatened to vote against the government unless it met a string of demands Ottawa is likely to reject.

The minority Conservative government, which says it wants to stay in power until late 2009, faces a vote of confidence in Parliament next month and can only survive with the help of an opposition party.

The separatist Bloc Quebecois has kept the government in power by supporting the 2006 and 2007 budgets. But leader Gilles Duceppe said today the Conservatives must meet five nonnegotiable conditions to get his backing again.

These include respecting the Kyoto protocol on climate change, something Prime Minister Stephen Harper says is impossible. Harper was to unveil his government's plans on October 16 in the so-called speech from the throne.

Duceppe outlined his demands and then said: ''We're waiting for the speech from the throne. Be ready. If these things aren't in it, we'll be having an election.'' Harper spokeswoman Sandra Buckler said Duceppe, who seeks independence for French-speaking Quebec, should not be reckless by threatening an election she insisted Quebecers do not want.

Three by-elections in Quebec last week showed support for the Bloc is slipping, in part because some supporters are unhappy about Duceppe's past backing of Harper.

If legislators defeat the speech from the throne, an election will be triggered automatically.

ANOTHER MINORITY GOVERNMENT? The Conservatives now hold just 126 of the 308 seats in Parliament, and polls show the most likely result of an election would be another minority Conservative government.

''The Bloc Quebecois fully intends -- and is very willing -- to stand up to defend Quebec's interests in Ottawa,'' Duceppe said in a speech in the Quebec town of Rimouski.

''And if the result of standing up for Quebec is a general election, we'll be on the road. And we'll win,'' he added.

The left-leaning New Democrats, who hold the balance of power, say there is little chance they will back the speech from the throne. Sources inside the official opposition Liberal Party were equally downbeat.

Unless one of the three opposition parties blinks, the government could fall in late October, triggering an election in late November or early December.

Harper has been wooing Quebec for years and won power in January 2006, unexpectedly snapping up 10 of the province's 75 seats in the federal Parliament. Conservatives are confident they can do better next time around.

Duceppe also said he wants federal support for Quebec's struggling forestry industry and a firm commitment that the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan would end as scheduled in February 2009.

The other demands are continued support for the agriculture sector and a promise by Ottawa to eliminate federal spending in areas Duceppe said were the responsibility of Canada's 10 provinces.

The Liberals have 96 seats in the federal Parliament, the Bloc 49 and the New Democrats 30. There are three independent legislators and four vacant seats.


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