Manitoba voters headed to the polls Tuesday under sunny skies and warm weather that was more like August than October.
All signs point to a tight race between the governing New Democrats, who are seeking a fourth consecutive mandate, and the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, who must take back several former strongholds in order to win.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are fighting to survive on the political map.
New Democrat Leader Greg Selinger said he was optimistic as he cast his ballot in his St. Boniface constituency.
“I think our candidates have worked really hard. They’ve made every effort to be in contact with their citizens and their constituents, not just during the election period but over the last four years,” he said.
It was Mr. Selinger’s first campaign as premier. He served as finance minister for 10 years until 2009. He said being the party’s front man has involved a learning curve.
“That was actually one of the fun parts of it. I like the opportunity to learn new things and to try new experiences and to challenge myself to do better.”
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard stayed close to home in his River Heights constituency for the final days of the campaign, knocking on doors and telephoning supporters.
Mr. Gerrard voted in River Heights on Tuesday and said he thinks his party has earned respect during the campaign. He says they’ve shown themselves to be fiscally responsible and have provided new ideas for rapid transit and education that sets them apart.
“We’re quite different than the other parties,” he insisted, in spite of the party’s support slipping in opinion polls.
Going into the election, Mr. Gerrard held the only Liberal seat in the 57-seat legislature.
He had to share the attention at his polling station since Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen lives in River Heights and voted there at the same time, although he holds the seat of Fort Whyte. Despite a relatively nasty campaign and opinion polls showing him trailing the ruling NDP, Mr. McFadyen said he feels confident.
“I think Manitobans are in the mood for change,” he said. “I think regular Manitobans from all walks of life are going to give us a shot today.”
Win or lose, Mr. McFadyen will have something to celebrate – his son James turns seven today.
Recent opinion polls have suggested the NDP has a slight lead in the race, especially in Winnipeg, where there are 31 of the 57 legislature seats. Mr. Selinger has spent most of the campaign in ridings held by cabinet ministers, such as Health Minister Theresa Oswald and Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby, who are facing strong Tory challengers.
Mr. McFadyen has also invested a lot of time in those seats, and rejected any talk of negative poll numbers Monday.
“What I’m picking up, particularly ... over the last nine days, is more and more Manitobans saying ‘12 years is enough, it’s time for change’,” he said.
The Progressive Conservatives are closer than they have been to power since 1999, when they were ousted by the NDP. The NDP is no longer fronted by Gary Doer, the charismatic leader who resigned in 2009.
But the Tories have spent much of the campaign on the defensive. The NDP persistently accused the Tories of having a secret agenda to privatize Crown corporations and cut health care. Mr. McFadyen took out newspaper, television and bus advertising that promised no such cuts would occur.
The campaign was the most negative in recent memory. One NDP ad included a photo of a scared little girl curled up in her mother’s arms, with the question “Can your family risk Hugh McFadyen and the PCs?”
The Tories, meanwhile, accused the NDP of letting criminals roam free with a soft-on-crime stance. One candidate’s radio ad called the Point Douglas area north of downtown “a war zone.”
The Liberals were facing trouble from within. One week before the election, one of the party’s candidates said he was worried the party might not win any seats and placed part of the blame on Mr. Gerrard.
Days later, two former Liberal members of Parliament wrote letters of support for New Democrats in two constituencies. Then, someone using a photo of Liberal candidate Paul Hesse opened a Twitter account and started posting messages urging Mr. Gerrard to step down. Mr. Hesse immediately denounced the move and said he had not authorized it.
The Liberals won just two seats in the 2007 election, and one became vacant last year Kevin Lamoureux resigned for a successful run at federal politics.
When the election was called, the NDP had 36 seats, the Tories had 18, the Liberals had one and there were two vacancies.
With files from Chinta Puxley