TORONTO – Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his coveted majority government in elections that changed Canada's political landscape, with the opposition Liberals and Quebec separatists suffering a shattering defeat.
Harper, who took office in 2006, has won two elections but until Monday's vote had never held a majority of Parliament's 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
Harper has deliberately avoided sweeping policy changes that could derail his government, but now has an opportunity to pass any legislation he wants with his new majority.
Meanwhile, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced Tuesday he will step down from the post after the party suffered its worst defeat in Canadian history. Ignatieff even lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb.
While Harper's hold on Parliament has been tenuous during his five-year tenure, he has managed to nudge an instinctively center-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation that would harm Alberta's oil sands sector, promoted Arctic sovereignty, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. He has also staunchly backed Israel's right-wing government.
Elections Canada reported results on its website, giving the Conservatives 167 seats, which will give Harper four years of uninterrupted government.
"We are grateful, deeply honored, in fact humbled by the decisive endorsement of so many Canadians," Harper told elated supporters at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
The Liberals dropped to 34 seats from 77 — finishing third for the first time in Canadian history.
The leftist New Democratic Party became the main opposition party, with 102 seats, tripling their support in a stunning setback for the Liberals who have always been either in power or leading the opposition.
The Conservatives had blitzed the country with TV ads targeting the Liberals' leader, running them even during telecasts of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.
The ads made relentless use of the more than 30 years Ignatieff lived in Europe and the U.S. "Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting," went one election ad. "Back in Canada. But for how long?" mocked another.
Ignatieff said the Conservatives engaged a "absolutely unscrupulous campaign of personal attack" but said he's not going out a sore loser. He said he just didn't meet enough Canadians.
"I had a very large square put around my neck for a number of years. Canadians were always slightly surprised to meet me in the flesh because I didn't turn out to be quite as bad as the ads portrayed me," Ignatieff said.
"I went through some difficult years. My attachment to the country, my patriotism was questioned, my motivations were questioned and that had a political effect, there's no doubt about that, but I have to also take my responsibilities."
Harper was helped by the NDP surge, which split the left-of-center vote in many districts, handing victory to Conservative candidates, especially in Ontario, where the Liberals were decimated in their last national stronghold.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to shatter the image of the Liberals — the party of former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau — as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the 52-year-old Harper should now be considered a transformative figure in Canadian history. "It's a sea change," Clarkson said.
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 and a federalist option after two decades of supporting a separatist party.
Voters indicated they had grown weary with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had a shocking drop to four seats from 47 in the last Parliament. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost his own seat and immediately resigned.
Quebeckers said separatism was still an important force, despite the province's rejection of the Bloc.
"I would caution anyone to think that the independence movement is dead at any time," said Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at the University de Montreal. "This is one of those burning embers things. It takes very little to ignite it, but right now it's only embers."
The NDP's gains marked a remarkable shift in a campaign that started out weeks ago looking like a straight battle between Harper and Ignatieff, a distinguished academic, with the 60-year-old Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip.
Harper counted 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. He said he would continue his plan to create jobs and growth without raising taxes.
The Conservatives have built support in rural areas and with the "Tim Hortons crowd" — a reference to a chain of doughnut shops popular with working class Canadians. In past elections, Harper's Conservatives did not explicitly ask for a majority to avoid raising fears among Canadians that they would implement a hidden right-wing agenda.
"Canadians can now turn the page on the uncertainties and repeat elections of the past seven years and focus on building a great future for all of us," Harper said after Canada's fourth election in the past seven years.
Harper plans to pass a budget and toughen Canada's crime laws when Parliament resumes. He also plans to cut off public subsidies for political parties, something that will further harm the centrist Liberals who have had trouble raising funds.
Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank, has said that having the New Democrats as the main opposition party would be ideal for Harper because it would define Canadian politics in clearer terms of left vs. right.
But Ignatieff believes that provides hope for the centrist Liberals.
"The surest guarantee of the survival of the Liberal party will be four years of Conservative right wing government and four years of NDP left wing opposition," Ignatieff said. (AP)