OTTAWA: Canadians voted Monday in closely contested general elections that could see Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the son of a beloved prime minister, end conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s near-decade in office.
Public opinion has swung wildly during the hard-fought campaign, one of the longest in the country’s history, but final polling showed Trudeau’s Liberals eight points ahead of Harper’s Tories.
For many Canadians, the election has become a referendum on Harper’s stiff management style, as well as who would be best placed to put the country’s struggling economy back on track.
The 43-year-old Trudeau, who made a late surge from third place, is the eldest son of Pierre Trudeau, considered the father of modern Canada.
He is hoping for a repeat of the “Trudeaumania” that swept his late father to power in 1968, replacing the plodding style of the old guard with a bullish vision and flare that Canadians were craving.
Trudeau — carrying his youngest son under his arm, and accompanied by his wife and two other children — cast his ballot in Montreal.
“It will be counted tonight,” he explained to his son as he slipped his ballot paper into the box.
On Sunday, Trudeau said the Liberals offer “not just a change in government, but a better government.”
Harper, who voted with his wife in Calgary, has been in power since 2006. He is seeking a fourth mandate, hoping to hold on to key Tory support in the western plains and in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
But he is now up against a powerful desire for a change in leadership and his personal image has fallen to an all-time low — highlighted by Tory television spots that open with a stark acknowledgment: “Stephen Harper may not be perfect…”.
On the last weekend of the campaign, enthusiastic crowds packed campaign rallies, as leaders criss-crossed a nation covering 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles) in a last-gasp push to win over undecided voters.
Nanos polling showed the Liberals have 38.2 percent support versus 30.1 percent for the Tories, while the NDP sank to 21.2 percent. The margin of error is 2.2 percentage points.
Results could be known as early as 0130 GMT when polls close in central Canada, and a half hour before the last poll closes in the westernmost part of the country.
Harper struggles, NDP stumbles
Over the past nine years, Harper has led two minority governments and one majority government, under mandates that have never exceeded 40 percent of the popular vote.
The incumbent warned Canadians would pay more taxes under a New Democratic Party (NDP) or Liberal government, and see Canada plunged back into deficit.
“Every single vote for a Conservative candidate is a vote to protect our economy against Liberal and NDP deficits and taxes,” Harper said.
The left-leaning NDP, led by Thomas Mulcair, had hoped to build on its second-place finish in the last ballot, in 2011, and govern for the first time ever.
But the NDP stumbled in recent weeks, losing key support in Quebec province over its opposition to the popular ban on the niqab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women.
“Canadians deserve change in Ottawa,” Mulcair told a crowd in Toronto on Sunday.
“Let’s remember that it was Liberal arrogance and corruption that Stephen Harper promised to clean up and, today, after 10 years of Conservative scandals, the Liberals are asking you to trust them to clean up that mess.”
Cold snap and baseball
Despite a cold snap in parts of the country and the attention of baseball fans on the Toronto Blue Jays’ first playoff run in 22 years, officials were expecting a big turnout with 26.4 million people registered to vote in 338 electoral districts.
The election authority’s website crashed Monday due to high traffic.
The 11-week campaign was one of the longest in Canadian history, giving voters unprecedented exposure to the party leaders and their ideas in five debates and almost daily stump speeches.
Along the way was debate on how Canada should handle a record influx of people fleeing war in Syria, a court ruling quashing a ban on the niqab and a recession.
In Quebec, several voters showed up Monday at polling stations in veils to protest the court’s ruling, saying the niqab had no place in Canadian society.
At times, the battle descended into personal attacks, with Tory ads suggesting that Trudeau — with his youthful good looks — is “just not ready” to be prime minister.
There were also betrayals along the way.
One-time senior Harper aide Benjamin Perrin said he voted “for change” because the government had “lost its moral authority to govern.”
And former media mogul Conrad Black, once Canada’s leading conservative voice, came out in support of Trudeau, saying Harper “did many great things for this country, but he hung on to power a little too long.”