Swing to left puts Canada PM Harper at risk in close election

CALGARY/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Canadians looked set for political change on Monday as polls showed a strong prospect that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government will be ousted, or reduced to a minority, amid a late surge by Liberal rival Justin Trudeau.

Lon Streeter carries one-year-old son Beau as wife Bailey holds the door as they head in to the polls in Nanton, Alberta, during federal election day in Canada October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Sturk

The 11-week campaign was considered too close to call for nearly two months, a virtual tie between the Conservatives, Liberals and left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP).

But the emergence of Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as frontrunner in recent polls has much of Canada’s national media writing Harper’s political obituary after nine years in office.

“Fear of Harper” has spurred more Canadians to vote, said youth worker Hilary Chapple after casting her ballot at the city hall in Calgary, Alberta province’s energy capital.

“People are now engaged more. They want to change things,” she said.

Still, a potential three-way split in votes would make it hard for either the Conservatives or center-left Liberals to win a majority of seats. A minority victory would likely presage another election in less than two years.

The Canadian dollar weakened against its U.S. counterpart ahead of the vote, a decline some market players attributed in part to the prospect of a Trudeau win. The Liberals have pledged to run budget deficits to boost infrastructure spending. [CAD/]

The Conservatives have tended to surpass poll forecasts, in part because of a strong get-out-the-vote machine. Harper exceeded expectations by winning a majority in 2011 after two minorities in 2006 and 2008.

Eric Tonellato gave his vote to Harper because he likes his promise of lower taxes and banning women from wearing a niqab during certain citizenship ceremonies.

“We need to maintain our Canadian traditions,” he said after voting in finance minister Joe Oliver’s Toronto riding, or electoral district.

The NDP, an early favorite to win, has faded to third place but could play a major powerbroking role in a minority situation. The NDP has said it would topple a Harper government at the earliest opportunity but would likely cooperate with a Liberal minority government, at least in part, to delay a costly new election.

The election could be decided once polls close in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s two largest provinces, which hold a combined 199 seats of the 338-seat Parliament, at 9:30 p.m. ET. A close election could make the Pacific province of British Columbia the decider. Polls there close at 10 p.m. ET.

Political pundits began to speculate on the makeup of a Trudeau government in the final weekend of the campaign while pondering what caused the downfall of Harper, 56, who has been criticized for his aloof personality but has won credit for economic management in a decade of global fiscal uncertainty.

If he wins, Trudeau has promised to follow a more multi-lateral approach on the global stage than has Harper and repair Canada’s relationship with the United States.

Harper’s campaign has focused on him, with Conservative ministers making rock-star-style introductions of the prime minister at rallies.

Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp in Toronto; Writing by Andrea Hopkins, Josephine Mason and Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Michael Perry, Meredith Mazzilli and Steve Orlofsky