OTTAWA – Canadians voted Monday in an election that could dramatically change the country's political landscape, choosing between a ruling Liberal Party weakened by political scandal and challenging Conservatives who would likely push Canada to the right and improve ties with the U.S.
Even if Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, 67, does eke out a win, he'll likely head a minority government that will find it very difficult to get things done in the House of Commons.
The Liberals took an early edge in the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, winning 19 seats to 10 for the Conservatives — three more than in the last elections — and three for the New Democratic Party.
However, the lead was not expected to hold once results are tabulated in more populated central provinces where polls closed at 9:30 EST.
Many Canadians have grown weary of the broken promises and corruption scandals under the Liberal Party and appeared willing to give Harper the benefit of doubt, despite fears the 46-year-old economist is too extreme in his views opposing abortion and gay marriage.
"Today will be a great day. Western Canada is finally going to get some representation," said Don Smythe, after casting his ballot for the Conservatives in Calgary, Alberta, Harper's constituency. "I think Canada has finally realized that it's time for a change and Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are the ones to do it."
Harper has pledged to cut the red tape in social welfare programs, lower the national sales tax from 7 percent to 5 percent and grant more autonomy and federal funding to Canada's 13 provinces and territories.
He also wants to improve relations between Canada and the United States, which comprise the world's largest trading bloc and conduct $1.5 billion in business daily.
The Liberals have angered Washington in recent years, condemning the war in Iraq, refusing to join the continental anti-ballistic missile plan and criticizing President Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions and enacting punitive Canadian lumber tariffs.
Harper has said he would reconsider the missile defense scheme, move beyond the Kyoto debate by establishing different environmental controls and tone down the "war of words" over lumber.
He also wants to spend more on the Canadian military, expand its peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Haiti and tighten security along the border with the United States in an effort to prevent terrorists and guns from crossing the frontier.
Martin, 67, has trumpeted eight consecutive budget surpluses and sought to paint Harper as a right-winger posing as a moderate to woo mainstream voters. The prime minister also has promised to lower income taxes, implement a national child care program and ban handguns.
He claims Harper supports the war in Iraq, which most Canadians oppose, and would try to outlaw abortion and overturn gay marriage.
Harper denies those claims and said Sunday that Martin had failed to swing voters against him.
"Canadians can disagree, but it takes a lot to get Canadians to intensely hate something or hate somebody. And it usually involves hockey," Harper quipped.
The country's 22.7 million registered voters headed to 60,000 polling stations amid unseasonably mild winter weather. Turnout was expected to be better than the June 2004 election, when 60 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot, the lowest number since 1898.
William Azaroff, 35, voted for the left-of-center New Democratic Party but conceded a Conservative government was likely to win.
"I think it's a shame," said the business manager from Vancouver, British Columbia. "I think the last government was actually quite effective for Canadians. I think a Conservative government is just a backlash against certain corruption and the sense of entitlement."
Martin's government and the 308-member House of Commons were dissolved in November after New Democrats defected from the governing coalition to support the Conservatives in a no-confidence vote amid a corruption scandal involving the misuse of funds for a national unity program in Quebec.
An investigation absolved the prime minister of wrongdoing but accused senior Liberals of taking kickbacks and misspending tens of millions of dollars in public funds.
Just as campaigning hit full swing over the Christmas holidays, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced they were investigating a possible leak by Liberal government officials that appeared to have influenced the stock market.
When the 38th Parliament was dissolved, the Liberals had 133 seats, the Conservatives had 98, the Quebec separatist party Bloc Quebecois had 53 and the New Democrats had 18. There also were four Independents and two vacancies.
Laureen Browne, a longtime Liberal supporter from Calgary who hasn't missed an election in 40 years, worries a Harper government would kowtow to U.S. interests.
"If the Conservatives win, we may as well become another U.S. state and let George Bush make decisions for us," she said. "If I don't vote, then I can't complain; and if the predictions are right, I will be complaining the loudest."