Nova Scotians proved they wanted change, handing Stephen McNeil's Liberals a decisive majority government that could be seen as a rebuke of government largesse and rejection of the increased HST.
The NDP loss was so profound that Leader Darrell Dexter has gone from government to third-party status – he even lost his own seat in the Halifax area.
Jamie Baillie's Progressive Conservatives will now form the official opposition, a surprise to many observers and strategists.
In almost a direct swap of ridings, the Liberals took away the NDP strength in metro Halifax and the rural ridings that helped the NDP form a historic first majority government in 2009. This is the first time in 130 years that Nova Scotians did not return an incumbent government to a second term.
"It is with a deep sense of responsibility and purpose that I will make sure our plan is delivered and our commitments are kept," Mr. McNeil said.
The former appliance repairman, one of 17 children from an Annapolis Valley family, becomes the province's 28 premier. His is the first Liberal government in Nova Scotia since 1999.
He and his party won 33 of 51 seats in Tuesday's provincial election, a gain of 22 from the 11 he managed to win in 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement congratulating Mr. McNeil.
"I look forward to meeting and working with premier-designate McNeil on issues of importance to Nova Scotians and all Canadians, including promoting jobs, growth and long-term prosperity," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. McNeil's gain is Darrell Dexter's loss. The NDP lost 24 of the 31 seats it had won in 2009. Many cabinet ministers went down to defeat.
"Tonight's result does not take away from what we have accomplished working together," said Mr. Dexter in a low-key concession speech, in which he spoke about his party's accomplishments.
The NDP Leader was hoping to win a second term when he called the election in early September. His was the first NDP government in Atlantic Canada when he won a majority four years ago by taking most of the urban seats and for the first time winning seats in the rural areas at the expense of the then unpopular Progressive Conservatives, who had been in government.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jaimie Baillie, the rookie leader in this campaign, won 11 seats, compared with 10 in 2009.
"Tonight shows that when you have the right ideas, when you have the right plan, when you have the people of Nova Scotia in your heart, you cannot keep a good team down," Mr. Baillie said after winning his riding of Cumberland South.
Mr. Dexter said he had called his opponents and congratulated them.
Mr. Dexter did not hint at his future, imploring people to try to have "some fun tonight" and saying tomorrow was the time to think about the future. Mr. Dexter said he will be meeting Wednesday with the party executive. The NDP lost 13 seats in metro Halifax, holding only two.
"Friends, it was a tough campaign," he said.
Later, he told reporters that he believes that the loss was in part the result of the fact that he was the focus of the stress and disappointment that voters feel about the economy and other issues.
Mr. Dexter has been leader since 2001 and there are questions as to whether he will now continue as leader.
Polls published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald consistently showed the McNeil Liberals ahead of the Dexter NDP throughout the 31-day campaign. That trend never changed – and in the end the polls, which had been wildly inaccurate in the recent British Columbia and Alberta provincial elections, proved to be accurate.
The polls were reporting a high percentage of undecided voters at 25 per cent. And worried about low voter turn-out – only about 58 per cent voted in 2009 – the province made it easier for citizens to vote, accommodating those with mobility issues and students. More than 100,000 of the 700,000 eligible voters cast ballots in the advance polls.
Although Tuesday started out raining it turned into a sunny day, making it easy for people to vote, at press time voter turnout was tabulated at just 54 per cent.
It was not clear, however, what issue was driving the public's seemingly voracious appetite for change. Mr. McNeil campaigned on a $46.7-million platform aimed at avoiding breaking a promise – he said he would not lower the HST until the province was in surplus; he said he hoped to balance the budget in his first mandate and he made a vague promise to break the so-called monopoly on power in the province.
During the campaign he was helped by federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who drew crowds in NDP-held ridings. Mr. McNeil and his team made the most of the federal leader's popularity by also featuring him in campaign ads and literature.
The NDP and PCs, meanwhile, both said they would lower the HST and balance the budget. In fact, Mr. Dexter was widely criticized when he took office in 2009 and raised the HST from 13 per cent to 15 per cent, after promising not to raise taxes in his campaign.
It's believed, too, that his efforts to help rural communities by bailing out dying industries with big cheques may have hurt him. A multi-million dollar forgivable loan to Irving Shipbuilding to upgrade the Halifax Ship Yard also could have played a part in the NDP's loss. The idea that a successful company would receive this kind of government largesse after winning a $25-billion federal contract to build ships was criticized by his opponents.
Mr. McNeil said his message is "one of hope, one that is thoughtful and one that is doable."
With a report from The Canadian Press