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Election campaign had sleepy start, rousing finish Add to ...

The federal campaign of 2011 began as a tedious replay of the last election, with the major parties frozen in place, unable to excite a weary and wary electorate.

But as Canada's 41st general election ends, it is anything but a replay. This campaign has shaken the assumptions of federal politics, though the outcome of Monday's vote is still impossible to predict.

The apparent dramatic rise in support for the NDP has created a three-way national race, and a four-way contest in Quebec, making it difficult to assess how any party's popular appeal will translate into riding-by-riding wins. This election, unwanted by most Canadians, could end up fundamentally recasting the terms of federal politics, the most dramatic possibility being Quebeckers embracing a federalist party after two decades of voting for a sovereigntist option.

One of the biggest questions is whether Conservative Leader Stephen Harper can, on his fourth attempt, secure a majority government. In the closing days of the campaign, the Conservatives have targeted the NDP as the main barrier to that goal, a concrete indication of the extent of the New Democrats' surge. The Liberals, too, have blasted Jack Layton and his party; Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's last-minute campaign dash is aimed at wooing the progressive voters needed to keep the party competitive.

The Bloc Québécois, which has always won a majority of Quebec seats since the 1993 election, was under intense pressure in this campaign, bringing out hard-line separatists in an attempt to elicit the core sovereigntist vote.

But the biggest surprise of the campaign, and a big question on election night, is the NDP.

Pollsters have identified the NDP surge, but the final result could be anything from vote splitting that leads to a Conservative majority to a diminished minority for Stephen Harper. Whatever the outcome, the surge in NDP support that was sparked in Quebec has turned a dreary election into one that has the possibility of reshaping the political landscape.

There was little sign of that possibility on the day the writ was dropped; Mr. Harper sought to harness the prevailing mood of exasperation with his criticism of an "unnecessary election."

For the first half of the campaign, it looked as if events would bear out Mr. Harper's point, and Monday's vote would return a carbon-copy Parliament. "Canadians were sleepwalking through this election," said Nik Nanos, president and chief executive officer of Nanos Research.

Then came the debates, the pivot points of many an election, appropriately enough in the precise middle of this campaign. Canadians had been expecting a showdown between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff - indeed, at the start of the campaign, the Liberal Leader had challenged his Conservative rival to a one-on-one showdown.

Instead, it was Mr. Layton's performance that proved critical, particularly in his faceoffs with Mr. Ignatieff, in the English debate, and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe the following night in French.

In the closest this campaign came to a knock-out blow, the NDP Leader undercut Mr. Ignatieff's rousing defence of parliamentary democracy by pointing out he had the worst attendance record of any MP. "If you want to be prime minister, you better learn how to be a member of Parliament first," Mr. Layton said. "You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion."

The next night, Mr. Layton's smiling promise of constitutional accommodation stood in sharp contrast to Mr. Duceppe's recitation of three decades of fruitless constitutional conflict, the Bloc Leader's tired rhetoric a reflection of a tired campaign.

That week, Mr. Layton's leadership numbers began to shoot upward, as Quebeckers tagged him with the nickname "un bon Jack" - a good guy. The NDP's poll numbers shortly began to rise in Quebec, leapfrogging past the other two federalist parties and then displacing the Bloc, including as the first choice of French Quebeckers. Days after that, the NDP surge began in English Canada, closing the gap with the Liberals - and then in the final week of the campaign, leaving the Liberals in a distant third place.

The most recent poll from Nanos shows the Tories with a narrow lead over the NDP nationally, the Liberals far back and the Bloc headed for its worst performance in its existence.

But Mr. Nanos makes a critical point. There is a world of difference between poll numbers, or even popular vote, and the real measure of victory in Canadian politics - riding-by-riding wins. Two big questions hang over the Monday vote: efficiency and effectiveness.

Voting efficiency, or the ability to win the maximum number of seats with the minimum number of votes, is a particularly pressing concern for the NDP, and for the Liberals. The NDP needs to worry about its rise in the polls being frittered by second-place finishes in a large number of ridings. For the Liberals, the worry is more grim - the grimmest being a repeat of the Progressive Conservatives' electoral debacle of 1993, when 16 per cent of the vote delivered just two seats. Four-way vote splits in Quebec, and three-way races in Ontario and British Columbia, further complicate the picture.

Effectiveness, or the ground game of getting supporters to the polls, is the other great unknown. The Conservatives have the edge; the Liberals say it may be their salvation. The NDP, in much of the country, will have to largely depend on their newly arrived supporters - many of them young, and statistically the least likely to cast a ballot - making their own way to voting booths.

Whatever the outcome of the 2011 election, this much is certain: the sleepwalk is over.

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