Canada ended nine years of Conservative rule late Monday, giving a hard-fought election win to Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau who hailed the victory as a triumph of "hope" over "fear." Despite earlier predictions that the Liberals would fail to win an outright majority, they passed the 170-seat threshold for a majority in Canada's 338-seat parliament.
The win reflected a political shift away from incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper's brand of fiscal and cultural conservatism. Liberal supporters at the party's campaign headquarters broke into cheers and whistles when the Canadian news channel CBAC projected that Trudeau would be the next prime minister. Top Trudeau advisor Gerald Butts tweeted "Amazing work #TeamTrudeau. Breathtaking really."
With the final count not yet complete, Trudeau's Liberals were on course to win at least 184 seats out of 338, a parliamentary majority that will allow Trudeau to govern without relying on other parties. Harper's Conservatives were winning 100. The Liberals received 39.5 percent of the overall vote compared to 32 percent for the Conservatives and 19.6 for the New Democrats.
The Liberal Party will form a majority government, and Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, will become prime minister. The elder Trudeau held the seat almost continuously from 1968 to 1984.
Trudeau re-energized the Liberal Party since its worst electoral defeat four years ago when they won just 34 seats and finished third behind the traditionally weaker New Democrat Party. Trudeau promises to raise taxes on the rich and run deficits for three years to boost government spending. He said positive politics led to his victory.
“My friends, we beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together,” Trudeau, 43, told a crowd of cheering supporters in Montreal. “This is what positive politics can do.”
Trudeau, a former school teacher and member of Parliament since 2008, becomes the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history.
His victory is expected to mean improved relations between Canada and the United States, which have soured over President Barack Obama's reluctance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
While Trudeau supports the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, he believes relations between the two major trading partners should not hinge on one project and has vowed to smooth over tensions. In addition to disagreements over the oil pipeline, Harper clashed with Obama on other issues, including the historic nuclear deal that the U.S. and six world powers recently reached with Iran.
Harper, one of the longest-serving Western leaders, stepped down as leader of Canada's Conservatives, according to a party statement issued as the scope of its loss became apparent. The Conservative party statement says Harper instructed the party to appoint an interim leader.
“The people are never wrong,” Harper said, well before an official final count. “The disappointment is my responsibility and mine alone.”
The Liberals are on track to break the record for the biggest gain in seats in an election, which was previously held by the Conservatives, who added 111 seats in the 1984 election. It is the largest percentage increase in seats ever gained by a party in an election.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said Canadians rallied around the Liberals as the anti-Harper vote.
“It became not only a referendum on Mr. Harper but really a sweep for Mr. Trudeau as well,” said Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at McGill University. “A clash of values pushed Canadians to really think about what they wanted from a government and what kind of image they wanted reflected back from that government and I think that's where Mr. Trudeau's optimism and hope and idea of change captured people's imagination.”
The decisive Liberal victory confounded expectations, after 11 weeks of campaigning, that the election was too close to call, and would produce a virtual tie between the Conservatives, Liberals and the left-leaning New Democratic Party. Polling by Canadian news channel CBC on the eve of the election showed Liberals taking 37 percent of the vote and Conservatives pulling 30 percent.
But following a decisive Liberal triumph in the Atlantic provinces, and the first results from much of the rest of the country, the networks began projecting a Liberal government.
“A sea of change here. We are used to high tides in Atlantic Canada. This is not what we hoped for,” said Peter MacKay, a former senior Conservative cabinet minister, shortly after polls closed in Atlantic Canada.
Harper’s re-election bid gained early traction on his reluctance to admitting Syrian refugees and opposition to Muslim women being allowed to wear the face-covering niqab during citizenship ceremonies.
But his hardline conservative positions failed to maintain momentum, as Liberals gained ground in recent polls.
The Conservative effort including targeting Trudeau's youth with ads saying he was “just not ready.”
Ahead of the first televised debate, campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke said that if Trudeau “comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations.”
Trudeau ended up performing well in the debate. Harper changed tactics, appearing at events with a giant noisy cash register and supporters peeling off wads of money to show how much they would lose under the Liberals.
A third candidate, NDP leader Tom Mulcair, also favored more government spending but said he'd balance the federal budget.
The NDP, an early favorite to win, tumbled to third place.
Paula Mcelhinney, 52, from Toronto, voted Liberal on Monday to get rid of Harper.
“I want to get him out, it's about time we have a new leader. It's time for a change,” she said.
Al Jazeera and wire services