New Democratic Party Leader Darrell Dexter, accompanied by his wife Kelly, right, and MLA Marilyn More addresses supporters in Dartmouth on Tuesday. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

Nova Scotia has its first NDP government — and a majority government at that.

A historic win by Darrell Dexter's New Democratic Party ended a decade of Progressive Conservative rule in the province.

It also marks the first time since 2003 that Nova Scotia has had a majority government.

"Who would believe that NDP orange would cover Nova Scotia from Cumberland County," a jubilant Dexter said before being drowned out by applause from supporters at party headquarters in Dartmouth, "right down through the Valley, as far south as Shelburne County and right on through to Cape Breton Island."

After the votes were counted Tuesday, the New Democrats swept in with 31 seats in the 52-seat legislature. A party needs 27 seats for a majority.

Dexter said he would use this mandate with both caution and enthusiasm. He promised to honour campaign commitments, such as keeping emergency rooms open, taking the HST off electricity costs and fixing rural roads.

"And we will live within our means," he added.

"Where we stand at this moment is not where we stop," Dexter said to applause. "It's where we start."

At dissolution, the Tories had 21 seats, while the NDP had 20. The Liberals trailed with nine. There was one Independent and one vacant seat.

The New Democrats toppled the Tories on their way to this historic win, reducing the once mighty Progressive Conservatives to only 10 seats and third-party status. The Liberals increased their seat total to 11, en route to becoming the province's Official Opposition.

The Green party finished with about 2.3. per cent of the popular vote, about the same as in the 2006 election.

'Winds of change' blowing

"The political winds of change are blowing. It's quite obvious," said Brooke Taylor, the Tory transportation minister who didn't run for re-election. "Frankly, you know, the electorate is always right."

Taylor suggested voters were ready for a change from the Tories.

"We may be seen as a 10-year-old government," he told CBC News.

Jane Purves, a former Tory cabinet minister and journalist, said Dexter deserves a lot of credit.

"He is not scary," she said, noting Dexter has a long political history in Nova Scotia. "Voters know he's not a crackpot ideologue. They like him."

The five-week campaign kicked off May 5 with PC Leader Rodney MacDonald calling it a two-way race between his Tories and the Opposition NDP.

By the end, MacDonald was comparing Dexter to a car thief. The quip was made after the NDP returned $45,000 in questionable union donations. The NDP later demanded that radio stations stop airing "defamatory" Tory ads which claimed the party had accepted illegal contributions from "union bosses."

The attack and counterattack came as opinion polls suggested Dexter's New Democrats were about to kick the MacDonald Tories out of power.

A poll commissioned by CBC News put the NDP ahead with 44 per cent of decided voters. The Liberals were in second place at 28 per cent, while the Tories were at 26 per cent. About two per cent of those surveyed supported the Green party.

Attacks went both ways

The Tories started a pre-election campaign with an attack on the NDP. The slogan and website "riskyndp" attempted to paint New Democrats as potentially careless spenders.

But it was the MacDonald government that fell on May 4 over money concerns.

The Tories wanted to spend $260 million instead of putting it toward the province's $12-billion debt, as required by law. The NDP and Liberals voted down a financial bill, prompting the government's collapse.

MacDonald blamed the NDP and Liberals for forcing an election and pre-empting a budget that promised hundreds of millions of dollars for new schools, roads and other infrastructure projects.

3rd campaign as leader

This was Dexter's third election campaign as leader, making him the elder statesman of the three.

Support for the NDP, which Dexter has led since 2002, has been growing. The party had its best result ever in the last provincial election in 2006, grabbing an extra five seats to end up with 20, including a couple in much sought-after rural districts. NDP candidates came in second in 15 districts.

Unlike the NDP, the Liberals went into this campaign with a relatively new leader. Stephen McNeil, one of the nine Liberal MLAs, was chosen leader two years ago to try to raise the party from its dismal status in the legislature.

For MacDonald, this was his second time out as leader on the campaign trail. His Tories were returned to power in 2006 only a few months after he took over the helm from John Hamm. But he failed to win back the majority the Tories lost in 2003.

This is the fifth provincial election in 11 years and Nova Scotia's 38th general election.