TORONTO – Canadians voted Monday in an election marked by a late leftward surge in opinion polls that could once again deny Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper a majority in Parliament and perhaps even end his five years in power.
Harper, who took office in 2006, has won two elections but never with a majority of Parliament's 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
Until last week, most polls indicated Canadian voters would give the Conservative government at least another minority mandate and perhaps even a majority.
But recent polls show a late surge for the leftist New Democratic Party, making it one of the country's most unpredictable elections in recent memory.
While the left-center vote could end up splitting between the New Democrats and Liberals, allowing Harper to eke out a majority, if Harper is held to another minority a new scenario has emerged in which the New Democrats and the Liberals together win enough seats to form a New Democrat-led coalition.
"We can change the government. We're not just going to oppose Mr. Harper, we're going to replace him," said New Democrat leader Jack Layton, whose party has socialist roots.
Ekos, a private polling company, gave the Conservatives 34.6 percent, the New Democrats 31.4 percent and the Liberals 20.4 percent. The pollsters said they questioned 3,268 people with a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points. A series of other polls have reported similar results.
"It's a complete shocker," Nelson Wiseman, a professor at the University of Toronto, said of what's been dubbed the "orange wave" of New Democrat support. Orange is the party's color. "It really is quite remarkable. You could never tell in the first weeks that this would happen."
Another surprise is that polls predict the New Democrats would eclipse the Liberals, who throughout Canadian history were the party that was either in power or leading the opposition.
The sudden shift reflected in the polls raised another, even more improbable scenario: that the New Democrats would win the most votes and leader Layton, a little known figure outside Canada, would become prime minister.
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 after growing weary of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
Layton favors higher taxes and more social spending. He has been a critic of Alberta's oil sands sector, the world's second largest oil reserves but a major polluter. Canada is the No. 1 source of oil for the U.S.
A New Democrat led-government would be a sharp turn to the left for Canada, as the party is promising to cap interest rates charged on credit cards, increase corporate taxes, and introduce a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming.
The Canadian dollar has fallen marginally against other currencies in recent days on concern the labor union-backed party might actually take power. It could also be a month or more before the New Democrats are able to negotiate a coalition government with the Liberals and there's no guarantee the Liberals would agree to prop up a New Democrat-led coalition.
Harper said it would be an "enormous risk" for Canada's economy if he doesn't get a majority and said a New Democrat-led coalition would mean higher taxes and job losses.
"Folksy talk, grandiose promises from an untested party on the campaign trail soon to be replaced by the sobering reality of crushing taxes, out-of-control deficits, massive job losses," Harper warned Sunday.
Harper is counting 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.
Negar Chavoshi, 27, said in Vancouver that she voted Conservative to keep the focus on the economy and called it the "safe" vote after Canada fared better than other countries in the downturn.
The three opposition parties combined held 160 seats in the last Parliament, while the Conservatives held 143. The Liberals held 77, the New Democrats 36 and the Bloc Quebecois 47.
The campaign started out looking like a straight battle between Harper and the Liberals' Michael Ignatieff, with the 60-year-old Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip. His party was scoring just 14 to 18 percent in polls. Now, he's way up in the polls and a photo of him wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs has gone viral in Quebec
Harper, 52, is a career politician who has spent the last five years emphasizing a more conservative Canadian identity and moving Canada incrementally to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, promoted Arctic sovereignty, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
Wiseman, the professor, said he didn't think the death of Osama bin Laden would have any impact on the election. The New Democrats are in favor of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan immediately.
The Conservatives have spent the last two years attacking Ignatieff, 63, a former Harvard professor who was seen as a rising political star but has been unable to overcome Conservative attacks and inspire voters.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals — a centrist party of Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau — as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Associated Press Writer Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British Columbia contributed to this report.