Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won his coveted majority government in elections which changed Canada's political landscape with the opposition Liberals and Quebec separatists suffering a shattering defeat.
Mr Harper, who took office in 2006, has won two elections but until yesterday's vote had never held a majority of Parliament's 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
While his hold on Parliament has been tenuous during his five-year term, he has managed to nudge an instinctively centre-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, promoted Arctic sovereignty, increased military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
Elections Canada reported preliminary results on its website, giving the Conservatives 167 seats, which will give Mr Harper four years of uninterrupted government.
"We are grateful, deeply honoured, in fact humbled by the decisive endorsement of so many Canadians," Mr Harper told elated supporters at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
The leftist New Democratic Party was projected to become the main opposition party for the first time in Canadian history with 102 seats, tripling its support in a stunning setback for the Liberals who have always been either in power or leading the opposition.
"It's an historic night for New Democrats," NDP leader Jack Layton told a delirious crowd in Toronto.
Mr Harper was helped by the NDP surge, which split the left-of-centre vote in many districts, handing victory to Conservative candidates, especially in Ontario, where the Liberals were decimated in their last national stronghold.
Former colleagues of Mr Harper say his long-term goals are to shatter the image of the Liberals - the party of former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau - as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Mr Harper, who comes from the conservative western province of Alberta, took a major step toward that goal last night as the Liberals suffered their worst defeat in Canadian history - dropping to 34 seats from 77, according to the preliminary results.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff congratulated Mr Harper and New Democrat chief Mr Layton and accepted responsibility for the "historic defeat".
"Democracy teaches hard lessons, and we have to learn them all," he told a sombre gathering in Toronto.
Mr Ignatieff, who even lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb, said: "I will play any part that the party wishes me to play as we go forward to rebuild."
Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said 52-year-old Mr Harper should now be considered a transformative figure in Canadian history.
"It's a sea change," he said.
The New Democrats' gains are being attributed to Mr Layton's strong performance in the debates, a folksy, upbeat message, and a desire by the French-speakers in Quebec, the second most populous province, for a new face and a federalist option.
Voters indicated that they had grown weary of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had a shocking drop to four seats from 47 in the last Parliament. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost his own seat and immediately resigned.
Quebeckers said separatism was still an important force, despite the province's rejection of the Bloc.
"I would caution anyone to think that the independence movement is dead at any time," said Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at the Universite de Montreal. "This is one of those burning embers things. It takes very little to ignite it, but right now it's only embers."
The Green party won its first seat ever in the House of Commons, with leader Elizabeth May winning in a British Columbia district.
The Conservatives got 40% of the vote, compared with 31% for the NDP and a dismal 19% for the Liberals.
The NDP's gains marked a remarkable shift in a campaign which started out weeks ago looking like a straight battle between Mr Harper and Mr Ignatieff, a distinguished academic, with the 60-year-old Mr Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip.
Mr Harper counted on the economy to help hand him the majority. Canada has outperformed other major industrialised democracies through the financial crisis, recovering almost all the jobs lost during the recession while its banking sector remains intact. He said he would continue his plan to create jobs and growth without raising taxes.
He campaigned on a message that the New Democrats stood for higher taxes, higher spending, higher prices and protectionism. He called the election a choice between "a Conservative majority" and "a ramshackle coalition led by the NDP that will not last but will do a lot of destruction".
Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Mr Harper at a conservative think-tank, has said having the New Democrats' as the main opposition party would be ideal for Mr Harper because it would define Canadian politics in clearer terms of left versus right.
The Conservatives have built support in rural areas and with the "Tim Horton's crowd" - a reference to a chain of doughnut shops popular with working-class Canadians. They also have blitzed the country with TV attack adverts, running them even during telecasts of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.
Lawrence Martin, a political columnist for The Globe and Mail newspaper and author of Harperland: The Politics Of Control, calls Mr Harper "the most autocratic and partisan prime minister Canada has ever had".
But to remain in office through the longest period of minority government in Canadian history, Mr Harper had to engage in a constant balancing act. The three opposition parties combined held 160 seats in the last Parliament, while the Conservatives held 143. The Liberals held 77, the New Democrats 36 and the Bloc Quebecois 47.
Mr Harper has deliberately avoided sweeping policy changes which could derail his government, but now has an opportunity to pass any legislation he wants with his new majority.Reuse content