TORONTO – Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday he won't shift to the hard right after his Conservatives won a long-sought majority in Canada's Parliament.
Monday's election marks a change in the country's political landscape with opposition Liberals and Quebec separatists suffering a punishing defeat.
Harper said the Conservatives won their mandate because of the way they've governed so far and sought to allay fears he would implement a hidden right wing agenda.
Harper, who took office in 2006, has won two elections but until Monday's vote had never held a majority of Parliament's 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
Harper has deliberately avoided sweeping policy changes, but now has an opportunity to pass any legislation he wants with his new majority.
"We got that mandate because the way we have governed and Canadians expect us to continue to move forward in the same way," said Harper, who has incrementally moved Canada to the right.
In past elections, Harper did not explicitly ask for a majority to avoid raising fears among Canadians that they would implement a hidden right-wing agenda and on Tuesday sought to reassure the country of his commitment to public health care.
"I think we've made it very clear that we support Canada's system of universal public health insurance," Harper said after the Conservatives won 167 seats, which will give him four years of uninterrupted government.
While Harper's hold on Parliament has been tenuous during his five-year tenure, he has managed to nudge an instinctively center-left country to the right, gradually lowering sales and corporate taxes, avoiding climate change legislation and promoting Arctic sovereignty.
He has also upped military spending, extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan and staunchly backed Israel's right-wing government.
Harper appeared happier than ever Tuesday.
"I obviously am feeling great," said Harper, who joked that his staff forced him to take a swig from a champagne bottle after his big victory.
Meanwhile, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced he will step down from the post following the party's worst defeat in history. Ignatieff even lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb.
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe also lost his own seat and immediately resigned after French-speaking voters in Quebec indicated they had grown weary with the separatist party, which had a shocking drop to four seats from 47 in the last Parliament.
Harper said he was disappointed the Conservatives didn't benefit from the dramatic shift in votes in Quebec but said he was encouraged the shift is toward federalism and he took some credit for it.
"As a Canadian and a federalist I am encouraged by the collapse of Bloc," Harper said. "I believe that the way we've been managing the federation and our relations, our significant and important relations with Quebec, have made a big difference in bringing about that change for the benefit of the entire country and now for the benefit of the NDP."
The leftist New Democratic Party went from one seat in Quebec to 58 and became the main opposition party, with 102 seats overall, tripling their overall support in a stunning setback for the Liberals who have always been either in power or leading the opposition.
The Liberals, who ruled Canada for much of the last century, dropped to 34 seats overall from 77 — finishing third for the first time in Canadian history.
The Conservatives had blitzed the country with TV ads targeting the Liberals' leader, running them even during telecasts of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.
The ads made relentless use of the more than 30 years Ignatieff lived in Europe and the U.S. "Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting," went one election ad. "Back in Canada. But for how long?" mocked another.
Ignatieff said the Conservatives engaged in a "absolutely unscrupulous campaign of personal attack" but said he's not going out a sore loser.
Harper was helped by the NDP surge, which split the left-of-center vote in many districts, handing victory to Conservative candidates, especially in Ontario, where the Liberals were decimated in their last national stronghold.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to shatter the image of the Liberals — the party of former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau — as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the 52-year-old Harper should now be considered a transformative figure in Canadian history.
"It's a sea change," Clarkson said.
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 and a federalist option after two decades of supporting a separatist party in Ottawa.
Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at the Universite de Montreal, said that the Bloc had originally answered the need for a Quebec protest, but had never converted that support into a long-term political identity.
Hicks said separatism was still an important force, despite the province's rejection of the Bloc. The provincial separatist Parti Quebecois are expected to take power in the next provincial election.
"I would caution anyone to think that the independence movement is dead at any time," said Hicks.
Many Quebeckers said they liked the NDP's social democrat ideology and expressed weariness with the Bloc Quebecois.
"I was just a bit tired of them talking about separation," said Emma Potvin, a 29-year-old server in Montreal. "I haven't seen a difference with the Bloc Quebecois, and I thought it would be good to have a national party."
The NDP's gains marked a remarkable shift in a campaign that started out weeks ago looking like a straight battle between Harper and Ignatieff, a distinguished academic, with the 60-year-old Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip.
Harper counted 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. He said he would continue his plan to create jobs and growth without raising taxes.
The Conservatives have built support in rural areas and with the "Tim Hortons crowd" — a reference to a chain of doughnut shops popular with working class Canadians.
Harper plans to pass a budget and toughen Canada's crime laws when Parliament resumes. He also plans to cut off public subsidies for political parties, something that will further harm the centrist Liberals who have had trouble raising funds.
Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank, has said that having the New Democrats as the main opposition party would be ideal for Harper because it would define Canadian politics in clearer terms of left vs. right.
Associated Press freelance writer Selena Ross in Montreal contributed to this report.