Canadians will cast ballots Monday in a national election, and what started out as a lackluster five-week campaign has turned into something unexpected for one of Canada's opposition parties.
In suburban Vancouver, more than 2,000 supporters of the New Democratic Party overflow a film studio in a setting similar to a rock concert. Party Leader Jack Layton is now capturing the headlines and finding support in opinion polls that were unfathomable just a few weeks ago.
Going into this election campaign, the New Democrats were the fourth place political party in Canada's House of Commons. Now, an unprecedented surge of support in recent opinion polls puts them within reach of the governing Conservatives.
It is a surprising turn in this election, as the NDP, which is on the left wing of the political spectrum, has never been in second place or in any position to lead a possible coalition government.
Canada follows the British Parliamentary system, where voters elect a local Member of Parliament. The party with the most elected members usually forms a government and that party leader becomes prime minister.
Going into this election, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper held the largest number of seats, but not a majority in the 308-seat house.
The Liberals, led by former Harvard University professor Michael Ignatieff, started out firmly in second place as Canada’s main opposition party, but have since dropped well behind the NDP.
Speaking at the campaign event, Layton says Canadians have historically only had two choices, the Conservatives or Liberals. He says a vote for the NDP will amount to significant change in the way Canada is governed.
"…[F]or far too long, leaders have told you it has to be this way. That there is no other alternative. That this is the best you can do. That you have no choice for real change. Well, in this election Canadians are saying, that’s wrong. We do have a choice, we can make change. In fact, that it is time for change.
Since the start of the campaign, most polls and political watchers have predicted the Conservatives to win the most seats, but not a majority. However, even if the NDP comes in second, they could join forces with other opposition parties and replace the Conservatives, who have been in power since January of 2006.
In a campaign rally in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, Conservative leader and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a crowd of supporters the choice is now between Jack Layton’s NDP and his party.
Harper says for Canada’s economic recovery to continue, he needs to be elected with a majority government.
"This is a campaign for the future of the country that we love. A campaign that will determine whether Canada moves forward, or Canada slides back. Friends, today you know, the world knows, Canada is moving forward. We have been through some difficult and challenging times, and some challenges remain. But friends, this country is emerging from the global recession in a position that is an economic engine of the world."
Harper says another minority government could quickly lead to another election, or an unstable coalition government led by the NDP and other opposition parties.
He says this would include the Bloc Quebecois Party, which only runs candidates in Quebec, and wants that province to separate from the rest of Canada and become an independent country.
The Green Party stands a chance of electing its very first member of parliament. Green leader Elizabeth May has concentrated her campaign on finding success in a constituency on Vancouver Island.
This is Canada’s fourth election in seven years and is estimated to cost more than $400 million.**
**(VOA originally said the election cost was $4 million. We regret the error.)