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Naheed Nenshi, a 38-year-old business professor, has been elected mayor of Calgary after more than half the city's eligible voters cast ballots, up from fewer than a third last time. ((CBC))

Civic activist and business professor Naheed Nenshi became Calgary's next mayor in a thrilling come-from-behind victory that kept voters in suspense late into Monday night.

Nenshi, 38, defeated longtime news anchor Barb Higgins and longtime alderman Ric McIver, who earned the nickname "Dr. No" from his critics for opposing many initiatives.

Nenshi is the first Muslim elected to lead a major Canadian city, an attribute he said was not a major issue in the campaign.

"I haven't shied away from anything in this campaign," Nenshi said Tuesday. "And issues of race and religion have not come up very much — except, frankly, by the media.

"I do hope that every kid who woke up this morning and their parents showed them the newspaper or turned on the TV — regardless of their background, regardless of their ethnicity or their income or what neighbourhood they live in this city — I hope every kid in the city said, 'Wow, in Calgary I can be anything.'"

Initial numbers showed voter turnout was 53.24 per cent, up from 32.9 per cent in 2007. Nenshi got 140,263 votes — 40 per cent of the ballots cast. McIver picked up 32 per cent, while Higgins got 26 per cent.

Nenshi has promised to limit urban sprawl, make neighbourhoods more fun, safer and greener. The Mount Royal University business professor took those ideas online, using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to help power his campaign.

"We really sought not just to use Twitter and Facebook as kind of a press release mechanism, but an opportunity to engage in really authentic two-way dialogue with people," Nenshi said.

McIver said he was disappointed by the result but glad he had run for mayor.

"Bottom line is, I didn't get enough votes. That's the nature of democracy," McIver said. "I'm happy. I would never have forgiven myself had I not ran for mayor," he added. "I needed to do this — the city needed me to do this. I'm satisfied I did the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way."

Higgins, after leading when results started to come in, finished third. She said she wouldn't have changed a thing about the way she ran her campaign. Now, she said, she's going to spend some time considering what she'd like to do next.

Nenshi outlined four priorities he wants to tackle as soon as he is sworn in next Monday: dealing with the city's $60-million budget shortfall, moving forward on a road tunnel under a new airport runway, planning for a new southeast light rail transit line and reforming the city administration.

With files from The Canadian Press