OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper suspended Parliament on Thursday to avoid almost certain defeat in a confidence vote _ an unprecedented move allowing him to retain power and confront Canada's flagging economy.
The Conservative leader won the approval of the unelected representative of the head of state for the power to shut down Parliament until Jan. 26, hoping to buy enough time to develop a stimulus package.
"Today's decision will give us an opportunity _ I'm talking about all the parties _ to focus on the economy and work together," Harper said.
Harper, whose party won re-election just two months ago, said a budget will be the first order of business when Parliament resumes.
Three opposition parties have united against Harper, charging he has failed to insulate Canada from the global financial crisis. The credit crisis and a global sell off of commodities have slowed Canada's resource-rich economy, and the finance minister said last week he expects a recession.
The parties, which control the majority of seats in Parliament, had scheduled a confidence vote for Monday in which Harper was virtually certain to lose _ a defeat that would have forced his government from power.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said the opposition would continue to seek Harper's ouster unless he makes a "monumental change" in dealing with the economy and other parties.
"For the first time in the history of Canada the prime minister is running away from the Parliament of Canada," Dion said.
The opposition was also outraged by a government proposal to scrap public subsidies for political parties, something the opposition groups rely on more than the Conservatives. Although that proposal was withdrawn, the opposition has continued to seek Harper's ouster, saying he has lost the trust and confidence of parliament.
Governor General Michaelle Jean, who represents Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, had the power to grant the unusual request to suspend parliament. Had she refused, Harper would have had two choices: step down or face the no-confidence vote.
Both Harper and Jean's spokeswoman declined to comment on the leaders' two-and-a-half hour meeting Thursday.
Robert Bothwell, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto, criticized the move to suspend parliament.
"Canada looks terrible. It looks ridiculous. It makes nonsense of our constitution," he said, adding that the move set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for any prime minister facing defeat to follow suit.
Opposition politicians also blasted Harper's methods.
"I frankly don't regard his government as legitimate any more," said Liberal Bob Rae, comparing the move to something more commonly expected from a Third World country. "His government is there because he avoided the will of Parliament."
Opposition New Democrat leader Jack Layton called it a sad day.
"He's trying to lock the door of Parliament so that the elected people cannot speak," Layton said. "He's trying to save his job."
Analysts said a governor general has never been asked to suspend parliament to delay an ouster vote when it was clear the government didn't have the confidence of a majority of legislators.
Harper's Conservative Party was re-elected Oct. 14 with a strengthened minority government, but still must rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois, which together control a majority of parliament's 308 seats, signed a pact agreeing to vote this coming Monday to oust Harper and setting the structure for their proposed coalition government.
But infighting among the Liberals is casting doubt on whether the coalition will hold. Liberal Jim Karygiannis called his party's leader a disaster and said Dion should step down.
The opposition was embarrassed by Dion's televised response to Harper on Wednesday. Dion's English is awkward and his address was beset by technical woes. It was delivered almost an hour late and the fuzzy quality of the production had Canadian Broadcasting Corp. anchor Peter Mansbridge cracking: "It kind of looked like they shot it with a cell phone."
Harper needs the support of 12 opposition lawmakers to avoid being toppled in a confidence vote next month and some lawmakers will consider breaking ranks with their party after hearing from angry constituents.
"The issue," Wiseman said, "is whether can the Liberals hang together."