OTTAWA — Canada’s parliamentary opposition reacted with outrage on Thursday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down the legislature until Jan. 26, seeking to forestall a no-confidence vote that he was sure to lose and, possibly, provoking a constitutional crisis.
Mr. Harper acted after getting the approval of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who represents Queen Elizabeth II as the nation’s head of state. If his request had been rejected, he would have had to choose between stepping down or facing the no-confidence vote on Monday.
The opposition fiercely criticized the decision to suspend Parliament, accusing Mr. Harper of undermining the nation’s democracy. “We have to say to Canadians, ‘Is this the kind of government you want?’ ” said Bob Rae, a member of the opposition Liberal Party. “Do we want a party in place that is so undemocratic that it will not meet the House of Commons?”
That sentiment was echoed by constitutional scholars, who lamented that the governor general might have created a mechanism that future prime ministers could use to bypass the legislature when it seemed convenient.
“This really has been a blow to parliamentary democracy in Canada,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “It has lowered the status of the elected Parliament and raised the status of the unelected prime minister.”
Thursday’s events had their origins in a hotly contested election, which Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party won less than two months ago without achieving a majority, leaving it vulnerable to challenge. In light of that and the growing economic turmoil, Mr. Harper promised to work closely with the opposition in the Parliament.
But the proposed budget he presented last week had none of the stimulus programs that the opposition had sought to help Canada’s sagging economy. The final insult for the main opposition parties, the New Democrats and the Liberals, was a provision that would eliminate public financing for political parties. They considered it a deliberate slap because Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party is currently far better financed than they are.
With that, they began scrambling to put together a coalition with the backing of the separatist Bloc Québécois to displace Mr. Harper’s government.
Mr. Harper said he suspended Parliament to allow time to put together a budget that he would introduce in January, and he once again spoke in conciliatory terms, inviting the opposition to participate in the drafting. “Today’s decision will give us an opportunity — and I’m talking about all the parties — to focus on the economy and work together.”
But Stéphane Dion, who leads the Liberals and who would become the coalition’s prime minister, dismissed the idea of working with Mr. Harper and said the Conservatives’ budget was unlikely to satisfy the opposition’s economic demands.
“We do not want any more of his words, we don’t believe them,” Mr. Dion told reporters before the closed doors of the House of Commons. “We want to see changes, monumental changes.”
Opposition leaders said they would continue to try to form a new coalition, and strongly criticized Mr. Harper’s attempt to thwart them. “He’s put a lock on the door on the House of Commons,” Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democrats, told reporters. “He refuses to face the people of Canada through their elected representatives.”
The opposition’s move to form a new coalition has, in turn, elicited sharp criticisms from some Conservative members. “That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine,” Bob Dechert, a Conservative member, said Wednesday, echoing a refrain heard widely in Alberta, the prime minister’s home province.
Technically, what Mr. Harper did was to “prorogue” Parliament, a move that stops all actions on bills and the body’s other business, and thus goes well beyond an adjournment (which was not available to Mr. Harper in any event, as it requires parliamentary approval). It is not unprecedented — prorogation is used occasionally to introduce a new legislative agenda — but this is the first time any Parliament members or constitutional scholars here could recall the maneuver being used in the midst of a political crisis and over the objections of Parliament.
Mr. Harper declared the parliamentary suspension after a two-and-a-half hour meeting in Ottawa with Ms. Jean. While no governor general has ever previously rejected a prime minister’s request to prorogue Parliament, several constitutional scholars said Mr. Harper was the first one to have asked permission when he did not have the support of the legislature.
“That’s why they spent two and a half hours talking,” said C. E. S. Franks, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Ms. Jean did not explain her decision, but Professor Franks speculated that Ms. Jean thought it was the least disruptive option. “There’s every likelihood that saying no would have thrown the whole system into turmoil,” he said. “But maybe it needs that.”
None of the opposition parties have suggested that they will mount a legal challenge. Adam Dodek, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has studied the governor general’s powers, said Canadian courts could offer only an opinion about the constitutionality of the decision. They lack the ability to issue orders to the governor general.
“I think it highly unlikely that any court would want to deal with this,” Professor Dodek said.
He added that an appeal to Queen Elizabeth was impossible.
In contrast to the relative public indifference to the elections two months ago, the current situation has provoked a passionate debate in the country and inflamed latent regional tensions.
In Western Canada, the Conservatives’ main base of support, political commentators are arguing that the coalition represents an attempt by more populous Ontario and Quebec to deny political influence to the West. But many Quebecers, particularly French speakers, have been offended by Conservative suggestions that they have no interest in remaining a part of Canada.