TORONTO – Canadians began voting Monday, a day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a final appeal for a "strong, stable, Conservative majority government" and warned he could be toppled by a leftist coalition if he doesn't get it.
Harper, in power since 2006, has won two elections but never with a majority of Parliament's 308 seats. If he doesn't get it this time, the opposition parties are expected to try to eventually form a coalition government.
Until last week, most polls indicated Canadian voters would give the Conservative government another mandate. But recent polls show a late surge for the left, which could redraw Canada's landscape and leave Harper out of a job.
The unexpected gains for the New Democratic Party have upended previous soundings that predicted the Conservatives would get enough votes for a minority mandate — or even win a majority.
Now a new scenario has emerged in which the New Democrats and the Liberals together win enough seats to form a New Democrat-led coalition.
"We can change the government. We're not just going to oppose Mr. Harper, we're going to replace him," said New Democrat leader Jack Layton, whose party has socialist roots.
Polls show the race has tightened between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, something no one predicted just weeks ago.
Ekos, a private polling company, gave the Conservatives 34.6 percent, the New Democrats 31.4 per cent and the Liberals 20.4. The pollsters said they questioned 3,268 people and gave a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points. A series of other polls have reported similar results.
"It's a complete shocker," Nelson Wiseman, a professor at the University of Toronto said of what's been dubbed the "orange wave" of New Democrat support. Orange is the party's color. "It really is quite remarkable. You could never tell in the first weeks that this would happen."
The New Democrats' gains are being attributed to Layton's strong performance in the debates, a folksy, upbeat message and a desire by the French-speakers in Quebec, the second most populous province, for a new face.
Layton favors higher taxes and more social spending. He has been a critic of Alberta's oil sands sector, the world's second largest oil reserves but a major polluter. Canada is the No. 1 source of oil for the U.S.
A New Democrat led-government would be a sharp turn to the left for Canada, as the party is promising to cap interest rates charged on credit cards, increase corporate taxes and introduce a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming.
The Canadian dollar has fallen marginally against other currencies in recent days on concern the union-backed party might actually take power. But polls show Harper is still expected to win the most seats in a minority government. It could also be a month or more before the New Democrats are able to negotiate a coalition government with the Liberals and there's no guarantee the Liberals would agree to prop up a New Democrat-led coalition.
Harper said it would be an "enormous risk" for Canada's economy if he doesn't get a majority and said a New Democrat-led coalition would mean higher taxes and job losses.
"Folksy talk, grandiose promises from an untested party on the campaign trail soon to be replaced by the sobering reality of crushing taxes, out-of-control deficits, massive job losses," Harper warned Sunday.
The left-center vote could end up splitting between the New Democrats and Liberals, allowing Harper to eke out a majority.
Harper is counting on the economy to help hand him the majority. Canada has outperformed other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis, recovering almost all the jobs lost during the recession while its banking sector remains intact.
The campaign started out looking like a straight battle between Harper and the Liberals' Michael Ignatieff, with 60-year-old Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip. His party was scoring just 14 percent to 18 percent in polls. Now, he's way up in the polls and a photo of him wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs has gone viral in Quebec
Harper, 52, is a career politician who has spent the last five years emphasizing a more conservative Canadian identity and moving Canada incrementally to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, promoted Arctic sovereignty, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. He has staunchly backed Israel's right-wing government.
The Conservatives have spent the last two years attacking Ignatieff, 63, a former Harvard professor who was seen as a rising political star but has been unable to overcome Conservative attacks and inspire voters.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals — a centrist party of Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau — as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian. (AP)