Voters stripped the long-dominant Liberal Party of its outright control of Parliament, but left it enough seats to take charge of Canada's first minority government in 25 years.
"It's unfamiliar terrain," said Prime Minister Paul Martin (search), relieved at avoiding even heavier losses in Monday's election at the hands of Quebec separatists and a newly unified Conservative Party.
Tarnished by financial scandal, the Liberals lost more than 30 seats to end an 11-year monopoly on power. In nearly complete returns, they had 135 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, compared to 99 for the Conservatives, 54 for the separatist Bloc Quebecois (search) and 19 for the left-wing New Democratic Party (search).
The New Democrats, who are aligned with trade unions and advocate higher taxes on the rich, were viewed as the most likely partners for the Liberals in an informal governing coalition.
"We as Liberals have lost votes," Martin acknowledged to supporters. "The message in this regard was unmistakable — Canadians expect more from us, and as a party and a government we will do better."
As for minority government, "we are up to the challenge," said Martin, 65. "We will make it work for all Canadians."
The most clear-cut winner was the Bloc Quebecois, which entered the election holding only 33 of Quebec's 75 seats. The gain of 21 seats, at the Liberals' expense, immediately fueled talk of holding a vote in Quebec on whether the French-speaking province should secede.
"The Bloc is the only party Quebeckers have faith in to defend their interests," said the party's leader, Gilles Duceppe (search), as hundreds of supporters celebrated in Montreal.
"The Quebec people are awakening," said Bloc activist Francois Gendron, 21. "We're preparing for the next referendum."
The Liberals had won three straight landslide victories under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien (search), starting in 1993, and there were signs during the five-week campaign that many Canadians were disenchanted with the party and its recent entanglement in a financial scandal.
The final polls taken before the balloting suggested the Liberals and Conservatives were deadlocked, and many analysts had predicted the Conservatives would win the most seats.
However, the results suggested a widespread reluctance to turn over power to the Conservatives' relatively untested leader, 45-year-old Stephen Harper (search).
The outcome was a deep disappointment to Harper and others who had worked relentlessly to merge rival right-of-center factions and end divisions that enabled the Liberals to dominate recent elections. The merger took place last year, but the hoped-for breakthrough in Ontario — home to one-third of Canada's population — failed to materialize.
Harper congratulated Martin and the Liberals, but added, "We will continue to hold them accountable." He said the Conservatives should be proud of gaining more than 20 seats compared to the outgoing Parliament.
Near-complete returns showed the Liberals winning about 37 percent of the total vote, compared to 29.6 percent for the Conservatives and 15.6 percent for the New Democrats. The Bloc Quebecois won half the votes in Quebec, accounting for 12.5 percent of the national total.
Among the first-time Liberal winners in Ontario was hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, former star goalie of the Montreal Canadiens. He remarked on the Conservatives' fade after a strong start to the campaign.
"If in fact in the early days of a campaign it's time to vent, in the final days it's time to think," Dryden said.
In the outgoing Parliament, which had 301 seats, the Liberals held 168 seats, the Conservatives 73, the Bloc Quebecois 33 and the New Democrats 14. There were nine independents and four vacant seats.
The leader of the New Democrats, Jack Layton, was elated at his party's gains and hoped the outcome would give it more leverage than ever before. His priorities include more money for health care and child care.