Until a few days ago, Monday's election looked set to give Canada another mandate for the Conservative government. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be out of a job if polls are right in predicting a late surge for the left.
The unexpected gains for the New Democratic Party have upended previous soundings that predicted the Conservatives would get enough votes to form a minority government, perhaps even a majority one. Now a new scenario has emerged in which the New Democrats and the Liberals together win enough seats to eventually form a coalition.
"We've had an earthquake here and it's all happening very quickly," said Nelson Wiseman, professor at the University of Toronto, after EKOS, a private polling company, gave the Conservatives 33.7 percent, the New Democrats 28 and the Liberals 23.7. The pollsters said they questioned 3,000 voters and gave a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points. A series of other polls have since reported similar results.
It was a shock on two levels: for suggesting the Conservatives might be edged out of office by a late surge, and for predicting that the New Democrats would eclipse the Liberals, throughout Canadian history the party either in power or leading the opposition.
The sudden shift reflected in the polls raised another, even more improbable scenario: that the New Democrats would win the most votes and leader Jack Layton, a little known figure outside Canada, would become prime minister. A poll published Thursday by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey put Layton's party just five percentage points behind the Conservatives.
"Nothing is off the table right now. We could have a New Democrat-led coalition, we could have a Conservative majority or we could even have the Liberals finish ahead of the New Democrats and a Liberal-led coalition," said Lawrence Martin, a political columnist for The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Harper, in power since 2006, has won two elections but never with a majority. Yet although his hold on the 308-member Parliament is tenuous, he has managed to nudge an instinctively center-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, backed the oil industry against the environmental lobby, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals _ the party of Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau _ as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Harper comes from the conservative western province of Alberta and "He's trying to say 'I represent Canadian values. Canadian values are really Conservative values,'" says Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank.
"It's Tim Hortons versus Starbucks," he says, using a political shorthand that contrasts the nation's favorite chain of coffee and doughnut shops, named after the ice hockey star who founded it, to the more upmarket, urban American import.
Nicholls and others say the New Democrats' surge may suit Harper by defining the contest in clearer terms of left vs. right, and winning over enough undecided voters to gain a majority.
But the latest polls suggest that hope is fading.
Harper said Friday he remains optimistic he will win a majority, but warned the Conservatives might not be in power for long if the result is another minority.
"We will accept any mandate from the Canadian public, but my fear is that if we have a minority mandate, the other parties will not accept it," Harper said.
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.
The New Democrats' gains are being attributed to Layton's strong performance in the debates, a cheerful, upbeat message and a desire by the French-speakers in Quebec, the second most populous province, for a new face.
"People are saying let's make some change happen," said Layton, who served as a longtime former city councilor in liberal Toronto.
The campaign started out looking like a straight battle between Harper and the Liberals' Michael Ignatieff, with 60-year-old Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip. His party was scoring 14 to 18 percent in polls. In the Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey it hit 30 percent, and a photo of him wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs has gone viral in Quebec
Layton favors higher taxes and more social spending. He has been a critic of Alberta's oil sands sector, the world's second largest oil reserves but a major polluter. Canada is the No. 1 source of oil for the U.S.
Harper said the New Democrats stood for "higher taxes, higher spending, higher prices, 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."
Harper is counting on the economy to help him. Canada has outperformed other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis, recovering almost all jobs lost during the recession while its banking sector remains intact.
The only area that has not felt his conservative touch is the social one: he has said he will not tinker with Canada's liberal abortion and gay rights laws.