By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - There is still a chance that Canada's Liberals, lagging in popularity and unable to excite the voters, could end up in power after the May 2 election.
The opposition Liberal Party has pledged not to form a coalition government with other parties in Parliament. But even if the Conservatives win the most seats, the Liberals might be able to replace them, constitutional experts say.
The issue of who will form the government has come to the fore because of the difficulty of getting a majority in a four-party Parliament, and because Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made talk of a Liberal-led coalition a centerpiece of his campaign.
The Conservatives will have first crack at forming a new government if they win more seats than other parties. But opposition parties could bring them down within days if the Conservatives have a minority, as they do at present.
Canada's governor general could then ask Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to form a government with the backing of other opposition parties, and Ignatieff would become prime minister of his own minority government.
"I think it's perfectly possible," said Ned Franks, a constitutional expert who used to teach at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. "There are scenarios that allow that to happen."
The idea of a coalition has alarmed Canadians in the past, especially those who dislike the concept of doing business with the Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party that does not believe Canada should even exist in its present form.
The Liberals nearly pulled such a union together in December 2008 under then-leader Stephane Dion, after their worst electoral showing since Canada was founded in 1867. But a high-profile signing ceremony with the Bloc and the leftist New Democrats turned into a public relations nightmare.
Harper, his popularity soaring, had Parliament suspended, Ignatieff took over as Liberal leader and the coalition died.
DIFFERENT PLAYERS, SAME STORY?
Fast forward to 2011, and unless the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament, Governor General David Johnston will have to decide what to do if a minority Harper government is brought down after the election.
"The governor general then is the main decision maker, and it's not any 'evil coalition' as Stephen Harper likes to portray them," University of Ottawa constitutional lawyer Errol Mendes said.
Mendes finds it difficult to believe any of the opposition parties would back the Conservatives just weeks after rejecting their budget and then voting the government out of power.
The New Democrats and the Bloc have both said they are willing to co-operate with other parties.
Ignatieff, while ruling out coalitions for now, has left the door open to forming a government if Harper fails to win the confidence of the House of Commons.
"Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government," he said at the start of the campaign.
He then laid out a scenario in which the party with the most seats fails to win the confidence of the House, and then the next party has a chance to try. "That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land," he said.
In this scenario, the Liberals could win power without a formal coalition, which usually means having cabinet ministers from member parties in the government, if the other opposition parties give them their support.
Harper's opponents note that he appeared to endorse this kind of arrangement in 2004 when he and the leaders of the Bloc and the NDP urged the governor general of the day to "consider all your options" rather than calling an election if the minority Liberal government fell.
A minority Conservatives government could also stave off defeat with concessions to the opposition, perhaps by sealing a tax deal with Quebec that has been long in the waiting.
So far, nobody is budging. The opposition parties have signaled they could not support the budget if it is the same one that was presented on March 22, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says nothing is going to change.
If a budget doesn't pass, the government falls.
(Editing by Janet Guttsman)