OTTAWA — Canada went to the polls Monday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper seeking an elusive Conservative majority but fearful of being unseated by a late surge from the left-leaning New Democratic Party. For the fourth time in seven years Canadians will choose a new government. Opinion polls showed the Conservatives facing a strong challenge from Jack Layton's NDP and all eyes were on how this would play out on election day.
Support for the social democratic NDP grew rapidly towards the end of the five-week campaign, while the Conservatives have been unable to broach the 40 percent mark that typically translates into a parliamentary majority.
Polls leading up to the election showed Conservatives in the lead with about 37 percent support while the New Democratic Party polled at 31.7 percent.
The Liberals, who governed for most of the last century and have traditionally been the second party in Canadian politics along with the Conservatives, appeared to be big losers with just over 20 percent, along with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, who were polling at just 5.7 percent.
Analysts say that if the Conservatives fall short of a majority Harper could be in real trouble and the NDP and the Liberals could end up forming a coalition with Layton becoming prime minister.
Polling stations opened at 1100 GMT in the easternmost Atlantic island province of Newfoundland and Labrador, with others to elect a total of 308 MPs opening at staggered times across Canada.
They are due to close in westernmost British Columbia province at 9:30 p.m. local time (0330 GMT Tuesday), and the first election results are to be released a half hour later.
Two televised debates in mid-April unleashed a staggering rise of the NDP, first in seat-rich Quebec which could return mostly federalist MPs to Ottawa for the first time in 20 years at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, then nationwide.
Since then, the two main parties shifted their attacks on the untested NDP.
Harper warned that if his party was sufficiently weakened the NDP and Liberals could form a coalition in the weeks ahead to wrest power from the Tories.
He said Layton's "folksy talk" masked a "sobering reality of crushing taxes, out-of-control deficits, and massive job losses," contrasting this with his Conservatives' deficit-slaying plank.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff joining in the attacks on Layton said: "He's got a fantastic smile... but the question every Canadian has to ask is what's behind the smile."
"Not much," he answered.
Layton is seen by many Canadians as honest and a defender of the middle class, the type of person with whom voters say they would be happy to share a beer.
The contrast could not be stronger with Harper.
Canadians are quick to acknowledge Harper's skill at managing the economy, which has been the main theme of his campaign. But his tendency to avoid answering questions from the public and the media during the campaign has worked against him.
This lack of transparency and the refusal of the Conservative government to more freely provide information to parliament were the basis of the March 25 no-confidence vote that triggered the election.
Crossing the country from east to west, traveling more than 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) by air on Sunday, Harper made a direct pitch to Liberals: "To make sure the economy stays on track for all of us, and the next parliament does not raise taxes, Canada needs a stable, majority Conservative government."
Layton opted for a bus, leaving from Montreal where he was mobbed by well-wishing crowds and making several stops in the main election battleground of Ontario, to Toronto.
"We can defeat Stephen Harper," an increasingly confident Layton told a rally in Kingston, Ontario, calling on voters to show up at the ballot box to "make these winds of change really happen."
"We have an historic opportunity here," he had said at an earlier campaign stop.
By Monday morning, however, their messages were drowned out by news of the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a firefight with US forces in Pakistan.