TORONTO — Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won his coveted majority government, according to projections Monday by Canadian media.
Harper, who took office in 2006, has won two elections but until now had never held a majority of Parliament’s 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
While Harper’s hold on the 308-member Parliament has been tenuous during his five-year tenure, he has managed to nudge an instinctively center-left country 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.
Both the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Canadian Press news agency projected a Conservative majority Monday, which will mean four years of uninterrupted government for Harper.
The New Democrats also are projected to become the main opposition party for the first time in Canadian history in a stunning upset over the Liberals, who have always been either in power or leading the opposition.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals — the 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.
Harper took a major step toward that on Monday night. Stephen Clarkson, professor at the University of Toronto, called it a crushing defeat for the Liberals and said Harper will now be considered a transformative figure in Canadian history.
“It’s a sea change,” Clarkson said.
The New Democrats’ gains are being attributed to leader Jack 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.
The NDP’s gains marked a remarkable shift in a campaign started out weeks ago 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
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 had showed a late surge for the leftist New Democratic Party, making it one of the country’s most unpredictable elections in recent memory.
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 reported similar results.
The New Democrats’ gains were 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 have been 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.
Harper said it would be an “enormous risk” for Canada’s economy if he didn’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.
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.
Zach Witte, 23, a Toronto resident, said Layton’s performance in the debates led him to vote for the New Democrats for the first time.
“I would never have voted for the NDP before but Harper and Ignatieff are two old parties saying the same old thing,” Witte said.
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.
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 and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.