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NDP Leader Horwath vows to work with other parties

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

After Ontario's NDP posted it's best result in a decade, Leader Andrea Horwath called for all parties to work together over the next four years now that the province has a Liberal minority government.

In her speech to a cheering crowd of 400 at a downtown Hamilton convention centre Thursday night, she promised the NDP "will work with all MPPs to make our Ontario government work."

While it was unclear whether the result would be enough to give the party the balance of power in the slim Liberal majority, Ms. Horwath will still wield considerable influence. Late Thursday night, she would not name her price for supporting the minority government.

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"Tonight, friends, we are just getting started," she told supporters. "We will bring change, we will put people first and we will not let you down."

In a scrum after her speech, she said she hasn't talked about the prospect of a coalition or deal with other leaders.

"No decisions have been made in that regard," she said.

She called for the legislature to be recalled as soon as next week.

"I do want to spend the next four years tackling the challenges we face," Ms. Horwath said. She listed making life more affordable, health care that puts people first and jobs as priorities.

The NDP leader took the stage following an introduction by Toronto councillor Mike Layton, son of late federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

Mr. Layton dubbed the night a "victory party," after the NDP sweept historic strongholds and made inroads in areas where it has not traditionally done well, appearing to have shaken the spectre of its unpopular run in government during the early 1990s.

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The first cheer of the night went up as Ms. Horwath was the first MPP to be officially projected to win her riding of Hamilton Centre.

The NDP went into the election with 10 of the 107 ridings in the province. As the nail-biting race stretched into early Friday morning, the NDP was leading in 17 seats while the Progressive Conservatives were leading in 37 and the Liberals were leading in 53 – one short of the 54 seat benchmark for a majority.

"It's time to move forward, together," Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said in his victory speech at an Ottawa hotel, repeating his campaign slogan. "We succeeded in our goal of electing an experienced Liberal government."

In his concession speech, PC Leader Tim Hudak congratulated Mr. McGuinty but said that the Liberals' loss of seats shows "the people of Ontario have sent a clear message that they want a change in direction" and that they "have put Dalton McGuinty on a much shorter leash".

News of a Liberal victory did nothing to dampen spirits at Andrea Horwath's campaign headquarters. Instead, supporters were fired up by the gains the NDP made across the province. As every seat gain was announced – including a possible sweep of the city of Hamilton – the room burst into cheers.

"Andrea really makes me proud to be a woman," said Kimberly Crawley, 27, a Hamilton IT specialist. "Howard Hampton appealed to people, but she appeals to people even more successfully."

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The New Democrats' turnaround was due in part to Ms. Horwath's personable, folksy style, which seemed to embody their image as a party of regular, middle-class people. Her campaign played on this, with unscripted encounters with voters and a deliberate avoidance of negative advertising.

The party also benefited from the momentum the federal party gained in its election breakthrough last May, and the prospect of playing kingmaker in a minority further energized it.

The campaign's messaging was unconventional, focusing on populist pledges to reduce taxes, create jobs and fight government waste rather than the NDP's usual leftist priorities, such as defending social programs and the environment.

Nonetheless, its strategy of going after ridings dominated by one part or another of the NDP's traditional coalition of blue-collar union workers and urbanites was successful. The party picked up seats in the North, inner-city Toronto and the NDP chief's native Hamilton.

Perhaps more importantly for its longer-term prospects, the party scored its first-ever seat in Peel Region with a win in Bramalea-Gore-Malton, the sort of suburban constituency around Toronto on which elections often turn.

The mood at her election-night gathering was euphoric, and somewhat out of proportion to the party's 17 seats. In part, it was giddiness about the possibility of forcing a Liberal minority to put NDP policies in place; mostly, it was a moment of catharsis after 16 years in the wilderness.

Like the federal NDP under Jack Layton earlier this year, Ms. Horwath's party started the campaign faring well in the polls, with a shot at finally re-emerging as a political force to be reckoned with.

The tantalizing prospect of a minority government, like the ones that had to acquiesce to Mr. Layton's demands federally, was in play throughout the campaign.

But while Ms. Horwath did venture occasionally into unfamiliar territory – including a handful of ridings in the Toronto suburbs where NDP candidates did well in the federal vote – for the most part, she focused on motivating her base.

Everywhere Ms. Horwath went, she drew respectably sized crowds of party faithful.

The party had many assets. First was its breakthrough in the federal vote, which gave it some hope a similar surprise result could happen during the provincial campaign. Second was Ms. Horwath's broad smile and freewheeling style of campaigning, combined with a discipline that kept her on-message.

Third was the fact that former premier Bob Rae, the albatross around the necks of provincial New Democrats these last 16 years, is now so heavily associated with the Liberals that Ms. Horwath's rivals could scarcely evoke his name to attack her any more.

Now, Ms. Horwath's mission is to show that she can do what the federal party has done in the past few years and grow beyond its traditional base.

- With a report from Karen Howlett

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