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New Brunswick Liberal Leader Shawn Graham waves to supporters as he boards his bus while campaigning in Val D'Amour, N.B. (Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
New Brunswick Liberal Leader Shawn Graham waves to supporters as he boards his bus while campaigning in Val D'Amour, N.B. (Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Hangover looms as cash-strapped New Brunswick prepares to hit the polls Add to ...

Voting started this morning in New Brunswick after a blizzard of promises jarringly at odds with the reality of a have-not province facing a huge deficit.

Public cynicism at the process appears to have driven voters to smaller parties, though their support is probably too thinly spread for them to win a seat. Instead the province will likely continue its two-party pattern, with the Progressive Conservatives under David Alward appearing set to replace Shawn Graham's Liberals.

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Don Mills, president and CEO of the Halifax-based polling company Corporate Research Associates, which has been tracking the race closely, said that the Tories were lying low during the summer and hit the ground running when the race began.

"As a result of their quick start they almost immediately rose in the numbers," he said. "We've seen a very big change of support in the southern part of the province. And that's where seats will change hands."

Traffic was heavy at advance polls last weekend, often viewed as a sign that the electorate wants change.

But Mr. Mills also noted that both main parties have been polling below their support in the last election. In spite of an enormous number of promises by the Liberals and Tories -- estimated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to top 500 during the campaign -- the main parties have said little about how they will handle the province's deficit, which is running close to $1-billion.

"Politicians are saying, don't worry be happy, vote for me," said Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton and one of the region's most respected voices on public policy.

"New Brunswick is in for a massive hangover," he warned. "The two parties have not been forthright. We are going to increase taxes and we are going to cut spending."

Among the many promises, Mr. Graham pledged a laptop for every middle school student and Mr. Alward said he would freeze power rates for three years. The Liberals costed their platform at $95-million and the Tories at $140-million. Outside observers believe the prices will run higher.

"The idea of putting a computer in every schoolbag reminds me of the days when you promised to put a chicken in every pot," Prof. Savoie said, adding: "I don't think the Tories have been any more responsible with spending commitments."

Although some of the pledges were welcomed by voters, they seem also to have contributed to a rising disenchantment with the main parties.

"The conclusion we were getting is that people didn't like either [major] party," Mr. Mills said. "There's a likelihood both parties will do worse than last time. Which is a big statement."

He said that, in the most recent analysis, the smaller parties were polling more than three times the support received in the last election. Even if that drops once the votes are counted it is a statement of growing dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

"We are realistic, we are pragmatic," said NDP Leader Roger Duguay. "What's going on through this campaign is incredible, irresponsible [promises]from the traditional parties. It's irresponsible if we want to save our health care and education systems."

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