Canada's Harper says minority government likely

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NEW YORK, Sept 25 (Reuters) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives won a fragile hold on power in early 2006, conceded for the first time in public today that it was very likely the next federal election would produce another minority government.

Harper, who says he 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. He controls 126 of the 308 seats in the federal Parliament.

Aides express confidence the party will do much better in the next election despite a string of polls showing the most likely result would be another minority government.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Harper said that with the current political alignment in Canada ''the possibility of minority government in any election, including one in the near future, would loom very high.'' The Canadian prime minister has until now declined to predict what might happen when the country next votes.

The separatist Bloc Quebecois kept the government in power in 2006 and 2007 but threatened last weekend to vote against Harper unless he met a string of demands that he is likely to reject.

Harper noted that Canada has had two minority governments in a row. The country has not had a majority government since June 2004.

'WELL-DEFINED' FOREIGN POLICY He said presiding over a minority government has not limited his power when it came to foreign policy.

''I may be criticized in parliament ... but in most cases, if I can make my cases to the Canadian people, I can pursue an aggressive or well-defined foreign policy. I don't think our government, on anything from the Middle East to Afghanistan to climate change, has had any hesitation in taking well-defined stands.'' In New York for the UN General Assembly session, Harper has said he plans to press the United States, China and other big greenhouse gas emitters to agree to binding targets for emission levels to counter global warming.

Today, Harper also criticized some in the United States for not supporting free trade agreements in the Americas enough.

He said the US government has become preoccupied with security since September 11, with a strong emphasis on national sovereignty and borders.

''Until we are able to decouple that somewhat better the prospects for deepening our economic relationship are limited.

What we want to do is make sure we don't go backward,'' he said.

Harper used his speech to again complain about a US initiative which will eventually oblige all Canadians visiting the United States to carry passports. He said the move could become ''a barrier to commerce and to our shared prosperity''.

Reuters KK VP0252

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