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B.C. NDP leader John Horgan speaks at the party's provincial election night headquarters following a majority government win in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada October 24, 2020.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

NDP Leader John Horgan’s gamble to call an early election amid the pandemic has paid off and he will return to the B.C. legislature as premier of a majority government.

Mr. Horgan’s NDP swept across much of Metro Vancouver with new seats in Richmond, Langley, North Vancouver, and Chilliwack, including ridings that have long been traditional strongholds of the right-of-centre Liberals.

Opinion: B.C. NDP’s pandemic election gamble pays off

Even with a substantial number of mail-in ballots that will not be counted until November, the NDP were leading and elected in 54 seats just 90 minutes after the polls closed, giving Mr. Horgan enough to command a healthy majority in the 87-seat legislature.

With just under 500,000 mail-in ballots returned, political observers had expected the final seat count could hang in the balance for weeks. But the NDP’s success was decisive enough for them to declare a majority government: The mail-in votes have a chance of making a difference in four ridings where the competitors are one or two percentage points apart.

"One thing we know for certain is that on Monday, I’ll be going back to work. And we’re going to be putting people, businesses, and others who are focused on getting through the pandemic at the front of everything that we do, " the premier-designate said in his victory speech.

The NDP campaigned on a promise to improve health care, seniors care, and child care. “The challenges ahead are daunting,” he said, “but I believe that if we focus on the things that matter to British Columbians, the things that matter to people, we will get through this.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the Liberal leader, acknowledged the NDP appear to have secured a majority but he did not address his party’s losses and would not answer questions about whether he would resign. Instead, he urged voters to “be patient” and await the final count.

“We owe it to every voter, every voter no matter how they expressed their intention to await the final result,” he said.

The election ended 3½ years of B.C.'s minority government, led by the NDP with the support of the Green caucus. On Saturday night, the NDP’s share of the popular vote had increased at the expense of the Liberals, tipping a string of seats in their favour.

The Greens held steady with the support of roughly 16 per cent of voters, and was projected to hold three seats, but will no longer have the balance of power as they did in the last parliament. The Greens lost their seat to the NDP in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, but were projected to pick up the West Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky riding. The constituency, which includes Whistler and Squamish, had been held by a Liberal and now represents the Greens' first provincial riding outside of Vancouver Island. The Greens also ran a close second to the NDP in Nelson-Creston.

In a wry observation, BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said the party had emerged stronger than before as a result of the election.

“The NDP engineered this election to get a majority and wipe out their opponents. They were half successful,” said Ms. Furstenau in an apparent reference to challenging results for the BC Liberals.

“While they may have their majority, British Columbians have returned Green MLAs to hold government accountable.”

Mr. Horgan called the vote on Sept. 21, a year ahead of schedule, while he was riding a wave of public confidence over his government’s management of the pandemic, led by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. That framed the ballot question around which party and leader would best get the province through COVID-19 and a long period of recovery.

The 2017 election made history. Voters delivered a split parliament with 43 Liberals, 41 New Democrats, each with 40 per cent of the popular vote. The Greens secured three seats and negotiated with both the incumbent Liberals and the NDP, but eventually settled on a deal to support a minority NDP government on budgets and other matters of confidence. The agreement ended 16 years of Liberal rule in B.C.

The 2020 campaign began six months after the B.C. Legislature united behind a pandemic response plan that would provide $6-billion in new funding to help individuals, communities and business.

But the stimulus funds for economic recovery targeting business were held back. Mr. Horgan announced a $2-billion recovery plan just four days before he called the election, and struggling small businesses say they are still waiting to see the funds flow.

The New Democrats spent much of the campaign touting their record in handling the pandemic to date, promising additional investments in health care as well as a one-time COVID-19 recovery benefit to families and individuals of up to $1,000. Mr. Horgan faced steady attacks by his rivals for the early election, which they described as purely opportunistic.

The NDP faced dissent, as well, over the appointment of Nathan Cullen, a high-profile white man, as the party’s candidate, in a riding where an Indigenous woman had sought the nomination. Mr. Horgan would later reprimand Mr. Cullen for “stupid” comments about a political rival who is Indigenous, but Mr. Cullen was expected to win his seat comfortably.

The Liberals' marquis promise to eliminate the PST for one year met with mixed responses. The Business Council of British Columbia had recommended a time-limited, 50-per-cent cut to the PST as a means of stimulating the economy, but the Liberal pledge went much further and would squeeze out other relief measures because of the $7-billion price tag in the first year.

The Liberals also struggled with embarrassing gaffes. Mr. Wilkinson was silent for days after a video emerged showing him and other members of his caucus chuckling as a Liberal candidate, Jane Thornthwaite, offered a sexualized and belittling take on a female political rival. Mr. Wilkinson later said the remarks were inappropriate and that Ms. Thornthwaite had made a fool of herself. Ms. Thornthwaite was expected to lose her seat.

Days later, he accepted the resignation of another Liberal candidate, Laurie Throness, who had suggested that an NDP election promise of free contraception was akin to eugenics. But the Liberal Leader was criticized for having ignored Mr. Throness’s long and controversial record, which included support for a Christian magazine that runs anti-LGBTQ articles. Mr. Throness remained on the ballot as a Liberal and appeared to be in a tight race for his seat.

The Green platform focused on both families and climate, including a promise of universal early education for three- and four-year-old children and a $1-billion innovation fund to shift to a zero-carbon economy, paid for by eliminating subsidies to fossil-fuel companies.

Elections BC, to adapt to COVID-19 safety measures, promoted mail-in ballots and expanded advanced polling opportunities, leading to a surge in voting ahead of general election day. With 3.5 million registered voters, more than one million British Columbians had already voted ahead of Saturday.

That will spell a significant delay in the final election results, because the counting of mail-in ballots will not begin until at least 13 days after the polls close.