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New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath greets supporters before giving speech on election night, in Hamilton Ontario October 6, 2011. (FRED THORNHILL/Fred Thornhill/Reuters)
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath greets supporters before giving speech on election night, in Hamilton Ontario October 6, 2011. (FRED THORNHILL/Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

Holding the balance of power, Horwath calls for stable Ontario Add to ...

She may be Ontario's new kingmaker, but Andrea Horwath struck a sober note Friday morning as the dust settled on an election that gave her party its best result in a generation.

Rather than making any hard-and-fast demands from Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty -- who, holding one seat less than a majority, will need her support in the new legistlature -- the NDP leader called for stability.

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“I think people want a stable Ontario and that's what I'm prepared to do,” she said at a farmer's market in downtown Hamilton. “I've never been one to draw lines in the sand or say 'it's my way or the highway'.”

She refuted any suggestion the Liberals would be able to lure one of her MPPs away to give them a majority, reiterated her call for the premier to recall the legislature as soon as possible and said that, despite Mr. McGuinty's attacks on her during the dying days of the campaign, she would be able to work with both he and Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

Her tone was a departure from the euphoric atmosphere the night before, as about 400 party faithful gathered at a nearby convention centre to watch the NDP pick up seven seats and take 22 per cent of the popular vote.

At times, the tenor of the celebration seemed out of proportion to the fact that the party remained a distant third, some 20 seats behind the Tories. But to the NDP, it was a victory: not only will it hold the balance of power in the new provincial parliament, but the result gives it reason to hope it has finally shaken the spectre of its unpopular run in government during the early 1990s. Not since then-premier Bob Rae led the party to defeat in 1995 has it seen the level of voter support it received Thursday.

The reasons for the result were manifold. In part, the NDP's unexpected success in last May's federal vote buoyed party members, who hoped for a similar surge during the provincial campaign; the perception Mr. McGuinty was vulnerable and the prospect of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament also helped energize the party. Ms. Horwath herself was a factor, possessed of a personable, folksy style which seemed to embody the party's image as champions of regular, middle-class people. Her campaign played on this, with unscripted encounters with voters and a deliberate avoidance of negative advertising.

"I think that she's a breath of fresh air," said Bob Brock, 64, a Hamilton resident who had never voted NDP before, but marked his "x" for Ms. Horwath after her performance in the leaders' debate convinced him she could rise above the petty squabbling at Queen's Park. "I just think that she can make the MPPs grow up and show their age. I think she'll work well with the other parties."

Her campaign also eschewed traditional left-wing messaging around themes like social programs and the environment, in favour of more populist pledges like reducing the HST and cutting government waste.

But despite this unconventional approach, Ms. Horwath zeroed-in on places where the party has traditionally done well, dominated by one part or another of its traditional coalition of blue-collar union workers and urbanites, with only occasional ventures into more uncharted territory.

The result on election night reflected this, with seat gains in the North, inner-city Toronto and Ms. Horwath's native Hamilton.

More importantly for the party's longer-term prospects, however, was a victory in Bramalea-Gore-Malton, where youthful lawyer Jagmeet Singh rode a wave of personal popularity to victory over the incumbent Liberal. The seat is the NDP's only outpost in the seat-rich band of suburbs around Toronto, where it must establish itself if it hopes to become a serious contender to form government.

Ms. Horwath shied away from comparisons to late federal NDP leader Jack Layton, but it was hard not to see parallels. Both took over parties in the political wilderness and re-energized them; they cultivated similar, cheerful public personas and Ms. Horwath borrowed heavily from Mr. Layton's playbook in casting herself as a sunny alternative to the negative, wedge-issue-driven tatics that dominate political strategizing.

Mr. Layton's son, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton, even introduced Ms. Horwath Thursday night.

"Last May we started an orange wave, and it continues tonight," he said. "These last two elections have shown us something -- that we can do politics differently."

The most important parallel, perhaps, is the position in which Ms. Horwath finds herself now: leading the smallest party in the legislature but wielding a disproportionate amount of influence, just as Mr. Layton did during three successive minority governments. Whether Ms. Horwath can leverage this position into an "orange crush" of the kind the federal party saw last spring remains to be seen, and will be the party's great challenge.

Follow on Twitter: @adrianmorrow

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