TORONTO - Millions of people head to polling booths today as Ontario voters pass judgment on eight years of Liberal rule after a month-long campaign marked by seismic shifts in public opinion.
Many analysts believe Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who began the campaign as the clear front-runner, will fall short in his efforts to loosen Premier Dalton McGuinty's grip on office.
"Tim Hudak blew it," said Larry Savage of Brock University's political science department.
In all, about 8.5 million people are eligible to cast ballots at a time when chilly economic winds have been buffeting the province.
McGuinty, who is hoping to defy pre-campaign predictions by winning a third straight term — something no Liberal has done in Ontario for more than a century — has been pressing his competence and experience as a fiscal manager.
It's a message that appears to have resonated with voters despite their anger at a string of his broken promises that should have washed Hudak into the premier's chair.
"We all kind of concluded it was a done deal," said Bryan Evans, a political science professor at Ryerson University.
"The Conservative campaign simply read it wrong and made too many strategic blunders along the way."
Analysts point to Hudak's constant banging of the anti-McGuinty drum rather than offering people a clear reason to vote for him instead.
He also insisted on pressing wedge issues that sparked a backlash and distracted from any positive message he tried to get out, observers say.
"He has not succeeded in getting people to trust him," said Laure Paquette, who teaches political science at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
"People don't trust the Tories to be tolerant."
According to the latest polls, Andrea Horwath will likely lead her New Democrats to levels of popularity unseen since her party's much maligned five years in office under Bob Rae in the early 1990s.
Analysts credit Horwath's feisty style along with an updraft from the her late federal counterpart Jack Layton for making a positive impact on voters.
However, they don't expect the NDP to make a dramatic breakthrough as Rae did in 1990 but could, polls suggest, hold the balance of power if McGuinty fails to win a clear majority of at least 54 seats.
"The way the vote splits will determine everything," Savage said.
Generally, low turnouts tend to favour the incumbents.
That means getting the vote out will be especially crucial for the Tories and NDP, which could prove a challenge if recent trends hold.
Turnout in the 2007 election plunged to historic lows, with barely more than half of eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot.
At dissolution, the Liberals held 70 seats, the Tories 25, and the New Democrats 10. Two seats were vacant.
The Liberals picked up 42.3 per cent of the popular vote in 2007, the Tories 31.6 per cent and the New Democrats 16.8 per cent. The Greens, who didn't win a seat, had the support of eight per cent of voters who cast ballots.
In all, 21 parties are registered for Thursday's vote.
By Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
The Globe's endorsement frames McGuinty as the moderate and experienced choice in tough economic times. While it praises Hudak's "basically sound political and economic principles," it faults him for spending the campaign criticizing McGuinty rather than outlining his vision for Ontario's future. The editorial completely discounts the NDP, arguing their "dangerously flawed" ideas could seriously damage Ontario's economy if the party is given a chance to influence policy either in government or within a minority. (CP)
The Star acknowledges that after eight years of Liberal government, many voters are looking for change. However, the editorial argues neither Hudak nor Horwath have put forward "credible plans" to deal with the issues facing the province. McGuinty is praised for making difficult choices on issues such as the HST and hydro bills and for making the "politically difficult but necessary decisions" which have resulted in his unpopularity. Again, "experience" and seriousness figure prominently in the explanation of the endorsement.
The Post's editorial board admits that while McGuinty's time in office has "hardly been a disaster" the Liberal record of "fiscal mismanagement and broken pledges" makes them the wrong party to guide Ontario through a period of deficit reduction. While praising Horwath as "warm" and "engaging," the NDP is found to be "ideologically unable to deal with the realities of a modern economy." The Post chooses Hudak based on his platform but also because they believe he is the only leader who can be counted on to make the "tough fiscal decisions" that are coming for Ontario.
In a move criticized by its co-founder Peter Worthington, The Toronto Sun has chosen not to make an endorsement. The Sun argues that neither McGuinty, Hudak nor Horwath will force government to "live within its means." While the editorial board admits it would have liked to endorse Hudak, they fault the Progressive Conservative leader for failing to put forward a strong deficit reduction plan.
The Spectator's editorial board argues either the NDP or Liberals would make a good choice for Hamilton. The endorsement credits McGuinty and Horwath for being strong on regional transit, poverty reduction, diversity and inclusiveness and for promising to reverse the downloading of costs and services to municipal governments. It finds the Progressive Conservatives either on the wrong side of these issues or simply silent on them.
The Citizen chooses McGuinty, but advises Ontario voters to hold their noses while voting Liberal. The paper prefers McGuinty's experience after watching Hudak and his team run what it sees as a less than stellar campaign. They conclude the "devil we know" is preferable during stormy economic times.
The Windsor Star endorsement faults Hudak for failing to properly articulate his plan and for not bothering to visit Windsor during the campaign. It gives the Liberals credit for showering the region with billions in infrastructure dollars and doubts the PCs or NDP would improve the situation. Despite expressing differences with the Liberals, the paper concludes they are the best party for Windsor and Essex County.
Northern Life credits McGuinty and the Liberals for doing good work on education, infrastructure, energy, the HST and reversing the downloading of costs to municipalities begun during the Mike Harris years. While Northern Life sees little in any of the party platforms for northern Ontario and a general ignorance of the need to devolve control of natural resources to regional government, they believe the Liberals will be more receptive to working with the region
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