TORONTO - Ontario was plunged into uncertain political waters Thursday when Dalton McGuinty became the province's first three-term Liberal premier in more than a century but failed to win decisively.
Aided by a lacklustre Conservative campaign, McGuinty bumped up against voter anger over broken promises and higher taxes in falling just shy of the 54 seats he needed for a majority.
The result was Ontario's first minority government in 26 years following a vote in which turnout plunged to new dismal lows.
Despite the Liberal loss of 18 seats and several points in popular support, McGuinty sounded a triumphant note in his victory speech from an Ottawa hotel.
"Sometimes, when you start out to make a difference, you end up making history," McGuinty said.
"But it's important that we be sober-minded about the message Ontarians have sent us tonight."
McGuinty gave no clear indication of how he saw the period ahead unfolding.
Earlier in the week, he emphatically ruled out a coalition or accord with either opposition party as the Liberals did in 1985, when they governed as a minority supported by the NDP for two years.
Final seat counts put the Liberals at 53 and the Tories at 37, with the New Democrats at 17.
The Liberals won about 37 per cent of the popular vote, just ahead of the Tories at 35. The NDP was at 23 per cent.
However, just 47.6 per cent of eligible voters turned out, down from the already unprecedented 52.1 per cent who voted in 2007.
Peter Graefe, a professor of political science at McMaster University, said McGuinty was like a boxer who had picked himself off the mat to win the final rounds.
He also predicted a fairly stable legislative session even with a McGuinty minority.
"He's in a strong position because he knows that the Ontario electorate isn't keen to have another election," Graefe said.
"I think he'll have a capacity to still have a pretty strong hand in terms of crafting directions and ensuring the parties support what he's trying to do."
The Progressive Conservatives under Tim Hudak, despite falling far short of their pre-campaign hopes and poll highs, added a dozen seats at McGuinty's expense to the 25 they held at dissolution.
In his speech late Thursday to a sparse crowd, Hudak was upbeat.
"It is very clear that the people of Ontario have sent a message that they want a change in direction," Hudak said to cheers.
"The people of Ontario have put Dalton McGuinty on a much shorter leash."
Andrea Horwath's New Democrats, a perennial also-ran in Canada's most populous province, made moderate strides, adding seven seats to the 10 they won in 2007 under former leader Howard Hampton.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper congratulated McGuinty "on his successful campaign" and re-election.
"I look forward to continue working with the premier and his team as we tackle the issues important to Ontarians and all Canadians," Harper said in a statement.
Although close in popular support, McGuinty's Liberals managed to outpace the Tories where it mattered — in seat count.
"This boils down to the Liberals are better campaigners than they are government," said Laure Paquette, a political science professor at Lakehead University.
"They had a damn good campaign strategy and they were very disciplined about it."
In defying pre-campaign polls, McGuinty out-manoeuvred Hudak, whose campaign imploded almost from the get-go with divisive hot-button issues that turned off many voters.
"He failed," Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, said of Hudak.
"He gave trite answers. He gave slogans. He didn't give the electorate a reason to vote for him."
See reasons why Ontarians voted from our #WhyIVote campaign on Facebook and Twitter here.
Despite a strong campaign, the NDP under Horwath were unable to ride the orange wave stirred by late federal NDP leader Jack Layton to the heights many pundits had predicted she would.
Nevertheless, Horwath, who began the campaign all but unknown to voters, managed to lift her party from the doldrums to which it had been consigned after Bob Rae's unpopular tenure as NDP premier from 1990 to 1995.
"Instead of voting out of fear, you voted for hope," Horwath told cheering supporters.
"Instead of voting for the same old solutions, you voted for change."
The month-long campaign was marked by seismic shifts in public opinion that began with Hudak as the clear front-runner and McGuinty fighting an angry backlash over broken promises, higher taxes, and two-term voter fatigue.
In all, about 8.5 million people were eligible to cast ballots at a time when chilly economic winds have been buffeting the province.
McGuinty pressed his competence and experience as a fiscal manager.
With files from The Huffington Post Canada
WATCH: McGUINTY'S FULL SPEECH: