TORONTO - Ontario's Liberals took an early lead over the Progressive Conservatives with ballot counting underway Thursday amid nail-biting uncertainty as to whether the snap election called more than a month ago would yield a decisive result.
The NDP, as polls have indicated, was far behind the other two in early counting.
Millions of voters had spent the day casting judgment on the scandal-plagued minority Liberal government under Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was seeking her first mandate as party leader.
Wynne spent much of the campaign defending herself from attacks related to Liberal decisions made by her predecessor Dalton McGuinty, which included the cancellation of two gas plants at an estimated cost to the public of $1.1 billion.
Both Hudak and Horwath were relentless in branding the Liberals as corrupt and incapable of fiscal responsibility, pointing to the province's $12.5-billion deficit.
Their campaigns, however, were anything but plain sailing.
Hudak ran into trouble with his pledge to create one million jobs — widely panned by economists as based on faulty math — and his promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs at a time the provincial economy is sputtering.
Yet he persisted, positioning himself as the only plain-speaking leader ready to tell voters what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
"It's only fair to be straight with people about the need to rein in the cost and size of government instead of making expensive campaign promises that can't be kept," Hudak said.
The New Democrats, offering a grab-bag of pocketbook promises such as lower hydro rates and auto-insurance bills, appeared to throw Wynne a lifeline as Horwath tilted her party distinctly to the right.
It was Horwath who triggered the $90-million 40-day campaign by refusing to support the minority Liberal budget many observers called the most progressive in the province's recent history.
As a result, Wynne fought back by arguing her party was the only option for Liberal and New Democrat voters worried that a Hudak government would be a throwback to the days of former Tory premier Mike Harris, whose time in office in the mid- to late 1990s was marred by labour and education unrest.
She promised a provincial retirement savings plan along the lines of the Canada Pension Plan along with investments in education and transportation.
A vote for the NDP, Wynne insisted in the last week of the campaign, would be a vote for Hudak.
"If people don't vote for our plan, then Tim Hudak will be the premier, because it is a tight enough race that that is what will happen," said Wynne, who took over as premier 16 months ago.
Horwath scorned Wynne's overtures to NDP supporters, arguing voters didn't have to choose between the "corrupt" Liberals and the Tories' "crazy" platform.
The campaign grew more petulant as it wound down, with the leaders accusing their rivals of fearmongering and mudslinging while arguing they were presenting a positive message.
At dissolution, the Liberals held 48 seats, the Tories 37 and the NDP 21. One seat was vacant.
More than 9.2 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the province's 107 ridings but political observers predicted an insipid turnout — perhaps below 2011, when a record low of 48.2 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.
They cited uninspiring choices at the ballot box, the negative campaign tone, and the involvement of some labour groups who came out against Hudak.