TORONTO // The Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper won his coveted majority government in elections that 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 Monday's vote had never held a majority of Parliament's 308 seats, forcing him to rely on the opposition to pass legislation.
Mr Harper has deliberately avoided sweeping policy changes that could derail his government, but now has an opportunity to pass any legislation he wants with his new majority.
Meanwhile, the Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday he will step down from the post after the party suffered its worst defeat in Canadian history. Mr Ignatieff even lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb.
While Mr Harper's hold on Parliament has been tenuous during his five-year tenure, 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 that would harm Alberta's oil sands sector, promoted Arctic sovereignty, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. He has also staunchly backed Israel's right-wing government.
Elections Canada reported results on its website, giving the Conservatives 167 seats, which will give 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 became the main opposition party for the first time in Canadian history with 102 seats, tripling their support in a stunning setback for the Liberals who have always been either in power or leading the opposition.
"It's a historic night for New Democrats," the 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 the 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 on Monday night as the Liberals suffered their worst defeat in Canadian history - dropping to 34 seats from 77. For the first time in almost 150 years of being, the Liberals have now been relegated to third.
The Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb, yesterday announced he was stepping down as leader.
"Democracy teaches hard lessons, and we have to learn them all," Mr Ignatieff told a sombre gathering in Toronto.
The 63-year-old former Harvard academic and human rights champion earns the dubious distinction of becoming only the second leader of the Liberal Party not to go on to become prime minister.
Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the 52-year-old Mr Harper should now be considered a transformative figure in Canadian history. "It's a sea change," Mr Clarkson 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 after two decades of supporting a separatist party. Voters indicated they had grown weary with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had a shocking drop to four seats from 47 in the last Parliament. The 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 in the House of Commons with the leader Elizabeth May winning in a British Columbia district.
The Conservatives got 40 per cent of the vote, compared to 31 per cent for the NDP and a dismal 19 per cent for the Liberals.
Mr Harper plans to pass a budget and toughen Canada's crime laws when Parliament resumes. He also plans to cut off public subsidies for political parties, something that will further harm the centrist Liberals who have had trouble raising funds.