Canadians have entrusted the Conservatives with a strengthened mandate at a time of economic uncertainty and the party "will deliver," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said early Wednesday following his party's minority victory in the federal election.
The result of Tuesday's national vote gives Canadians their third consecutive minority goverment, and is also likely to trigger further speculation over the future of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.
Throughout the campaign, Harper refused to speak of a potential majority, but repeatedly asked Canadians to give his party a "strong mandate" in the face of growing economic uncertainty.
"Canadians have voted to move our country forward and they have done so with confidence," Harper told a rally of supporters in Calgary.
The prime minister also praised his Liberal rival for his many years of public service and appealed to all other parties in Parliament to join together with his government to protect the economy.
"Canadians are worried right now, and I understand those worries, but I want to assure Canadians that working together, we will weather this storm," he said. "We will position our economy to emerge stronger than before."
As of early Wednesday with almost 60 per cent of votes counted, the Conservatives were elected or leading in 143 ridings, up from 127 in 2006, while the Liberals were elected or leading in 77, a drop of 18 seats since the last election.
The Bloc Québécois were leading or elected in 49 ridings, while the NDP were ahead or holding 37 seats, a gain of seven seats since the last election. Two Independents also held on to their seats.
Dion vows to work with Tories on economy
Addressing supporters early Wednesday, Dion conceded defeat to Harper, while adding he had every intention of staying on as Opposition leader because Canadians have asked him "to carry the Liberal values."
"The next few months will be crucial for our country," he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Montreal.
"It is clear that our economy, indeed the global economic crisis, is the most important issue facing our country at this time.… We'll work with the government to make sure Canadians are protected."
'No party has a mandate': Layton
Speaking in Toronto late Tuesday night, NDP Leader Jack Layton said the result of a second Conservative minority government means "no party has a mandate to implement an agenda without agreement from the other parties."
While his party "didn't get the gold medal this time," Layton said the NDP campaign was able to put the concerns of ordinary Canadians over the economy at the centre of political debate.
"That is what New Democrats do day in and day out and that is what we're going to do in the next Parliament," he told a crowd of cheering supporters. "We're going to put forward our agendas."
The Tories' fortunes were buoyed early in the evening by surprising gains in Atlantic Canada, especially in New Brunswick, despite the party being shut out in Newfoundland and Labrador. Meanwhile in Ontario, returns suggested vote-splitting and a strong NDP showing were cutting into Liberal support in the party's traditional heartland.
In British Columbia, Conservative candidates were elected in 22 ridings, a gain of five from 2006, followed by the NDP with nine seats and the Liberals at five seats.
We blocked Harper majority: Duceppe
The Bloc jumped to an early lead in Quebec, but did not appear to shake the small gains the Tories made in the province in the 2006 election. The Conservatives had been hoping for a breakthrough in the 75-seat province, viewing it as a key component in their hopes to win a majority.
The Conservative government's cuts to arts funding and Harper's campaign pledge of tougher penalties for youths convicted of serious crimes were widely met with an outcry in Quebec and appeared to galvanize support for Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe.
Speaking in Montreal, the Bloc leader told supporters the party achieved its objective.
"Without the Bloc Québécois tonight, Mr. Harper would have formed a majority government," he said.
But the Tories' only major casualty of the night in Quebec was Michael Fortier, who sparked controversy with his appointment to cabinet as an unelected senator in 2006. Fortier resigned from the Senate to run as an MP in the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, but lost to Bloc incumbent Meili Faille.
Unlike Dion, who vowed he would not quit as leader after a Liberal loss, Harper said he would step down as leader if the Tories were defeated.
Harper's Conservatives began the campaign with a huge financial advantage over the other parties and with polls suggesting they had the potential to win a majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives led the Liberals by as much as 17 points in early opinion polls.
But that lead shrank steadily, with the Liberals pulling within striking range of the Tories just over halfway through the 37-day campaign amid a meltdown in the world's financial markets sparked by the U.S. credit crisis.
May fails to gain seat for Greens
Voting results for the country's 40th general election could not be publicized nationally until after the polls closed in British Columbia and the Yukon at 7 p.m. PT.
Harper, Layton and Dion breezed to victories in their own ridings, but Green Leader Elizabeth May failed in her bid to unseat Conservative incumbent and Defence Minister Peter MacKay in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova.
In her concession speech, May said the Greens have run "the kind of campaign that other politicians could only dream of."
"If the kids five years up could have voted, I would have won in a landslide," she told a rowdy crowd of supporters at her campaign headquarters.
MacKay said the "highly unpopular" carbon tax proposal of the Liberals and the Greens was a factor in his victory because of the region's heavy reliance on transportation.
"A lot of people were obviously concerned about the impact on their home heating oil and at their gas tanks and basically a hit on every single item that comes and leaves this province," he told CBC News.
ABC spells shutout for Tories in N.L.
The first results came in from Newfoundland and Labrador, where voters appeared to heed Premier Danny Williams's "Anything But Conservative" appeal by shutting out the Tories in the province.
Liberals were elected in six of the province's seven ridings, while Jack Harris, a former MP and provincial NDP leader who was also Williams's longtime law firm partner, was elected in a landslide for the New Democrats in St. John's East.
Williams, a Progressive Conservative, began his "ABC" campaign in response to what he said was Harper's broken promise to rearrange the equalization formula for his province to include offshore oil and gas revenues in the 2007 federal budget.
Fabian Manning, the Conservative incumbent in Avalon and the Tories' last remaining hope in the province, lost his seat to the Liberals' Scott Andrews.
Bill Casey, who was kicked out of the Conservative caucus for voting against the 2007 budget because of the changes, was re-elected as an Independent in Nova Scotia.
Google gaffes, galas and false starts
The often rancorous campaign was punctuated by several gaffes by party leaders, as well as the withdrawal of several candidates over past actions, writings and statements that emerged to haunt their political aspirations in the internet age.
Harper drew intense criticism for suggesting Canadians take advantage of "buying opportunities" in the stock market plunge, as well as saying "ordinary Canadians" couldn't relate to artists complaining about a lack of funding while attending "rich galas" subsidized by taxpayers.
Dion, in turn, was embarrassed after a botched start of a television interview showed him struggling to understand a question on what the Liberal leader would have done to help Canada's economy if he were prime minister.
The Conservatives had campaigned on a series of what Harper described as modest, affordable proposals of tax reductions to benefit Canadians at a time of financial uncertainty. The party also portrayed the spending pledges and proposed tax measures of the Liberals and New Democrats as dangerous and unrealistic.
Dion appealed to progressive voters — including NDP and Green supporters — to "go green, vote red" and back his party to form a government and prevent what he said was Harper's "right-wing agenda."
The Liberal leader faced blistering criticism from the Tories for his $15-billion carbon tax proposal known as the Green Shift, which called for personal income-tax cuts paid for by a $10-per-tonne levy on carbon fuels.
Ultimately, growing financial fears among Canadians over the global effects of the U.S. credit market meltdown pushed the economy to the centre stage of the campaign.
The four opposition leaders accused the previous Conservative government of mismanaging Canada's economy amid massive job losses in Central Canada's manufacturing industry, and they asserted the Tories had no plan to deal with the current financial turmoil.
As Canadians watched the effects of the credit crisis spread globally and stock markets plummeted, Harper's rivals portrayed the Conservative leader as callously indifferent to the concerns Canadians felt over their jobs and retirement savings.
Harper defended his government's record of reducing the GST and paying down the national debt, while repeatedly saying the country's overall economic stability could weather potential global difficulties.
Meanwhile Layton, portraying the New Democrats as the real alternative to the Tories, stepped up his criticism of Dion for the Liberals' refusal to stand against the Harper government on dozens of confidence votes in the previous Parliament.
When the election was called in early September, the Conservatives held 127 seats, the Liberals had 95, the Bloc Québécois held 48, the NDP had 30 and the Greens had one (B.C. Liberal-turned-Independent MP Blair Wilson joined the Greens days before the election call). Independents held three seats and another four seats were vacant.
Canada's first minority government was in 1921 under Liberal MacKenzie King. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, Canadians were governed by four minority governmnts in a row. John Diefenbaker failed to get majorities in 1957 and 1962.
Lester Pearson won the election in 1963, but with a minority, and did the same in 1965. Pearson was the only Prime Minister so far never to head a majority government.