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Canada election: a historic shift?

Sandro Contenta

TORONTO, Canada — Canadians are voting today in what is shaping up to be an historic federal election that results in the powerful rise of the socialist-rooted New Democratic Party.

The NDP’s surge has taken pundits by surprise and made a mockery of the cynical view that Canadians — faced with their fourth federal election in seven years — were too bored or irritated to tune in.

The NDP’s unprecedented rise has shuffled the political deck in ways that make predicting tonight’s outcome difficult. Polls suggest Canadians might catapult the NDP — a party that has historically placed a poor third or fourth in elections — into second place, thereby granting it the status of official opposition to the government in parliament.

That would be all the more significant because the stability of the government to be decided today remains unclear. All polls show Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party retaining power. But it remains to be seen whether Harper returns with another minority government, or whether he wins his coveted majority.

If it’s another minority, a defeat in a parliamentary vote could result in the NDP forming the government, backed by other opposition parties, including the centrist Liberal Party.

On Sunday, Harper warned voters of that outcome, claiming an NDP government would result in higher gas prices and higher taxes.

“Let’s be clear,” he told supporters in the Atlantic province of Prince Edward Island. “A vote for the NDP is not a protest vote. A vote for the NDP is a vote for an NDP government. A vote for the Liberals is now a vote for an NDP government.”

The NDP’s rise also resulted in what the party’s leader, Jack Layton, described as an 11th-hour attempt to “smear” his reputation. In a report Friday, the Sun TV network said Layton was found in a Toronto massage parlor raided by police in 1996. On Sunday, Layton said he visited the Chinatown parlor one time only, and had no idea it was a suspected bawdy house. He was never charged.

“The police advised that it wasn’t the greatest place to be,” Layton, who is married, told reporters. “I left and I never went back.”

Harper’s campaign was blindsided by the NDP surge. He spent most of it lambasting Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, made few election campaign promises beyond eliminating Canada’s $55.6 billion deficit, and repeatedly warned voters that an unstable minority government would threaten Canada’s economic recovery.

The biggest loser election night could well be Ignatieff. The former Harvard professor ran a solid campaign but couldn’t shake the damage done to his image by Conservative attack ads, which used his three decades living abroad to question his commitment to Canada.

A third place finish would be devastating for the Liberal Party, which won so many elections in the past that it became known as Canada’s natural governing party. Ignatieff’s election promises included giving $1,000 a year to every college and university student, $1 billion to create new daycare spaces, $1 billion to help care for ill family members at home, and a $400 million tax credit to help Canadians pay for energy-saving home renovations.

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