Manitoba Election: Closest Race In More Than A Decade Expected

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GREG SELINGER MANITOBA ELECTION DEBATE
Manitoba NDP Leader Greg Selinger listens as Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen, right, responds to moderators' questions at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce provincial leader candidate debate between Selinger, McFadyen and Liberal leader Jon Gerrard in Winnipeg, Thursday, September 22, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods) | CP

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's New Democrats rode a resilient economy to win a fourth-straight majority government Tuesday, even though the Progressive Conservatives took a big bite out of their popular vote.

It wasn't enough for Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen, who told supporters he takes personal responsibility for failing to dent the NDP's seat count and will step down once his replacement is chosen.

Premier Greg Selinger's party took 37 of the legislature's 57 seats compared with 19 for the Conservatives and one for the Liberals. Some constituencies, including two with very tight races, had some ballots that Elections Manitoba said wouldn't be counted until Friday, but none of those will impact the NDP's majority.

The makeup of the legislature will be virtually unchanged from the 2007 election when the NDP won 36 seats.

The popular vote was almost a dead heat. The NDP was running at close to 46 per cent, less than two percentage points ahead of the Tories. In 2007, the New Democrats beat the Tories by 10 points.

"Today Manitobans went to the ballot box and they voted for optimism!" Selinger told a crowd of cheering supporters after the results came in.

"Tonight we have made history in Manitoba. Life is never better than when we work together for a purpose greater than ourselves, and that's what we've done tonight."

Manitoba has been largely unaffected by the economic slowdown that has hit other parts of North America. With low unemployment, a strong housing market and the recent return of the National Hockey League to Winnipeg, voters stuck with the party that has held power since 1999.

"I felt on the doorstep ... that there was no great mood for change," Attorney General Andrew Swan said. "People were satisfied with the work that the NDP has done over the past 12 years and they want us to get back in and keep working hard."

The key for the New Democrats was Winnipeg, which has 31 seats and holds the balance of power. The NDP was elected in all but a handful of those seats, which allowed the party to hold off a strong rural showing by the Tories.

The PCs had targeted a number of seats in the capital city with little success. Star candidates such as Olympic speedskater Susan Auch and former city councillor Gord Steeves went down to defeat by healthy margins. NDP cabinet ministers were re-elected, handily in most cases.

McFadyen said he didn't get the job done.

"You have to deliver bottom-line results if you want to carry on as leader of the party," he said. "We didn't get the result we wanted so I am announcing tonight that I will be stepping down as our party leader."

McFadyen added that his party was the victim of a cruel numbers game under the first-past-the post election system.

"Under any other circumstance we would be happy with 45 per cent of the popular vote," he said. "Obviously we didn't get those votes in the right places.

"It's a very disappointing night for all of us."

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard retained his Winnipeg riding of River Heights, but his party fell to 7.5 per cent voter support from 12 per cent in 2007.

Gerrard wouldn't discuss his future, but did say he would represent his constituents for the next four years. He told his supporters not to lose faith.

"There is a very strong future for Liberals in Manitoba," he said.

"We have a dream someday we will have a Liberal government in this province. Let us, in spite of the results today, not be disheartened."

Selinger retained his Winnipeg seat of St. Boniface and McFadyen was re-elected in the city's Fort Whyte constituency.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent his congratulations to Selinger. "I look forward to continuing to work with him on promoting prosperity in the province and country," Harper said in a news release.

The win is a personal victory for the premier, who took over from Gary Doer, the charismatic leader who was the face of the NDP in Manitoba for 20 years. Doer left to become Canada's ambassador to the United States and party support dipped under Selinger. He had served as the province's finance minister for a decade but struggled as leader to connect with voters.

As recently as seven months ago, polls suggested the Tories were well out in front of the New Democrats, but Selinger polished his public-speaking skills and developed a more aggressive tone when debating his opponents.

That tone was evident throughout the hotly contested four-week election campaign. The parties were differentiated more by their attacks ads than by policies.

On billboards, television and in print, the NDP accused McFadyen of having a secret agenda to privatize Crown corporations and cut health care.

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?"

McFadyen, 44, is a former lawyer who has led the Tories through two unsuccessful campaigns. He was painted by the NDP as a neo-conservative threat to government programs based on his time as a policy adviser to the Tory government of the 1990s, which sold off the province's telephone company.

McFadyen spent much of the campaign on the defensive. He took out ads that promised no such cuts would occur.

But the Tories also took their own jabs. They accused the NDP of having a soft-on-crime stance and letting criminals roam free. One candidate's radio ad called the Point Douglas area north of downtown Winnipeg "a war zone."

All three parties promised to hire more doctors and nurses to improve health care and to put more police officers on the streets to fight the province's high crime rate.

The NDP and Liberals promised to balance the budget by 2014, while the Tories said they would take until 2018 to avoid tax increases.

The leaders fought to occupy the political centre in a bid to capture the middle-class suburban seats that usually determine Manitoba elections.

One of the few major policy differences was over a massive hydroelectric transmission line, now in the planning stages, that is to bring power from northern dams to homes and businesses in the south.

Manitoba Hydro wanted to build a direct line through the boreal forest along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. But the NDP ordered the Crown corporation to reroute the line to the western edge of the province, making it hundreds of kilometres longer and hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive.

The Tories campaigned on a promise to revert to the original route, but the NDP said that line would threaten a fragile ecosystem and be blocked by aboriginal groups in court.

Gerrard, 63, has had four kicks at the can and has failed to bring the Liberals out of the political wilderness. He struggled in a campaign that was personally disheartening and, at times, riven with dissent.

One week before the election, one Liberal candidate said he was worried the party might not win any seats and placed part of the blame on 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 Gerrard to step down. Hesse immediately denounced the move and said he had not authorized it.

The Liberals won two seats in the 2007 election. One became vacant last year when 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 and Scott Edmonds

By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

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