Canadians have begun voting for a parliamentary election that seems to be too close to call, with the ruling Conservatives and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) appearing to be the frontrunners in pre-election polls.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his final appeal on Sunday for a "strong, stable, Conservative majority government" and warned he could be toppled by a leftist coalition if he doesn't get it.
Polls show that the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, the current prime minister, are set to win the most seats in the 308-seat House of Commons, but may well fall short of securing an outright majority.
The Conservatives have been in power since early 2006, forming two succesive minority governments, which had forced them to seek opposition support for key bills. The party insists that it needs a majority in order to keep taxes low and to secure Canada's recovery from the global economic crisis.
Harper has said that if his party falls short of its goal, the centre-left opposition, consisting of the NDP and the Liberals, will form a "dangerous" coalition that will destroy the Canadian economy.
The NDP has been running a strong second in the polls, promising hikes in corporate taxes, increased social spending and a new cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions.
"The risk, a very real risk if we do not get a majority, is a New Democrat-led government promising the moon and soon seeing the consequences - raising taxes, killing jobs, setting families back ... and sooner rather than later, yet another election," Harper told a rally in Atlantic Canada on Sunday.
The Conservatives could benefit from vote-splitting between the NDP and their Liberal rivals. If they do manage to eke out a majority, they would be able to secure a four-year term in power for their prime minister.
An Ekos poll for the iPolitics website, however, shows that a clear majority for any party is unlikely.
Conservatives currently have 34.6 per cent of the public's support, while the NDP is trailing close behind at 31.4 per cent. The Liberals are on 20.4 per cent, according to the poll.
Canada's economy has been among the best performing among rich developed countries, although its deficit has hit record levels under the Conservatives, who have spent heavily to pull the country out of recession.
All three parties have promised to balance the budget, a move that has gone down well with the financial markets, analysts say.
'Winds of change'
Support for the left-leaning NDP, led by Jack Layton, has grown rapidly in recent weeks, and Liberals, who governed the country through much of the 20th century, have been losing ground.
"If we are going to make the winds of change happen then we have a lot of work to do between now and the time that the polls close on Monday evening," Layton said on Saturday morning in Montreal.
Layton's political stance stands in contrast to Harper's, whose skill at handling the Canadian economy has been lauded, but who has a tendency to avoid transparency and consultation - the refusal of the Conservative minority government to provide information to members of the parliament was the basis of the March 25 vote of no-confidence that led to these polls being called.
Michael Ignatieff, the former university professor and writer who leads the Liberals, has so far appeared unable to ignite enough popular support to beat the Conservatives outright.
All three leaders continued a heavy schedule of campaigning on Sunday. Harper crossed the country from east to west by air, while Layton opted to take a bus from Montreal towards Ontario, a major election battlefield. Ignatieff has been concentrating on the Toronto region.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Nelson Wiseman, a professor of politics at the University of Toronto, said that NDP's surge was sparked by strong campaigning in Quebec, which now seems to have caused support for the party to spread to other areas.
"But the NDP is not going to finish first in tomorrow's election. The Conservatives are going to get re-elected, the issue is will they have their long-coveted majority? And they're very close to it, they're only 12 seats short of it, and their support does not seem to be any weaker than last time. And their partisans are the strongest in their vote commitment," he said.
"The real story here is the demise of the Liberal party, which has been the most successful liberal party in the western world for over a century now, since the late 1800s. They've always been the government or the opposition, they've been government more than often."
The election is Canada's fourth such poll in seven years.