OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the first major world leader to face election since the global financial meltdown, appeared poised to keep his job Tuesday as Canadians voted in a national ballot amid a rebound in the country's stock market and currency.
The opposition Liberals have traditionally been the party in power, forming the government for most of Canada's 141 years. But the left-of-center vote was divided among four parties, giving an edge to the Conservative Party.
Results were not expected until the last polls closed in British Columbia at 10 p.m. EDT.
"I think the absolute best result for Harper is a stalemate," said Robert Bothwell, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto. He expected Harper to hold on to power but predicted the leader wouldn't win a majority or be able to implement his agenda.
The party winning the most seats generally forms the government, with its leader becoming prime minister. The opposition parties could unite and topple Harper if they won enough seats for a majority, but analysts said that was unlikely because the parties have no tradition of forming such coalitions.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion's campaign was hindered by his unpopular plan to tax all fossil fuels except gasoline and by perceptions he is a weak leader. A former professor from French-speaking Quebec, Dion also suffered in other regions because he frequently mangles English grammar and his accent makes him hard to understand.
Analysts said Harper wanted the election before the economy got worse and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, which could put a Democrat in the White House and encourage Canadians to choose a more liberal government.
At the campaign's start, polls suggested Harper would increase the Conservatives' 127 seats in Parliament above the 155-seat threshold needed to rule on its own in the 308-member body.
Then the global credit crisis worsened and many Canadians complained Harper was slow to react. He hurt himself by saying during a debate that Canadians were not concerned about jobs or mortgages. A few days later, he said stocks were cheap — just before Canada's main stock exchange had its worst week in almost 70 years.
Harper has since said he knows Canadians are worried and stressed that Canada's economic and fiscal performance contrasts to the more dire situation in the United States.
"Americans are running deficits. We're running surpluses. Americans are incurring debt. We're paying down debt," Harper said. "We have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years ... We have a better economic situation than the United States because, for two and a half years, we have made better choices."
Canada's main stock exchange rose more than 9 percent Tuesday following moves by governments in the U.S. and Europe to recapitalize major banks and try to unfreeze credit markets. The Canadian dollar closed up 1.40 U.S. cents, at 86.09 U.S. cents.
Recent polls indicated Harper shored up support in the past week as he argued that he was the best candidate to manage the economy and that Dion's proposed carbon tax would hurt the economy.
A Harris-Decima poll put voter support for Conservatives at 34 percent nationally, followed by the Liberals at 25 percent and the New Democrats at 19 percent. The Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois was at 11 percent and the Green party had 9 percent.
The poll represented 1,218 interviews conducted Thursday through Sunday with a margin of error of nearly 3 percentage points.
Opponents sought to paint Harper as a right-winger who would seek to reshape Canada like a U.S.-style Republican and sought to tie him to the unpopular President Bush.
Since becoming prime minister in 2006, Harper extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan and pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Harper supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq when he was in the opposition in 2003. Dion was part of the Liberal government that opposed the war.
Since becoming Liberal party leader in late 2006, Dion has moved the Liberals to the left. He has had little success selling his carbon tax idea to Canadians and even members of his own party. Many expect Dion to be removed as party leader if he loses the election.
If Dion was ousted as leader after a loss, he would be just the second Liberal leader to fail to become Canada's prime minister. The only other was Edward Blake, who led the party to defeat in the 1882 and 1887 elections.