Kathleen Wynne powered Ontario's minority Liberals past a legacy of scandal Thursday, staving off aggressive assaults from the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats for an unexpected majority win and a fourth straight mandate.
Despite a hard-fought campaign rife with accusations of corruption and incompetence, jaundiced voters gave Wynne's government a fresh chance, making her the province's first elected female premier. And in an election that was supposed to be Tim Hudak's to lose, they delivered a stinging rebuke to the Conservatives, robbing the party of 10 seats and forcing its leader to step down in defeat.
Defying almost all predictions, Wynne earned a convincing win both in the popular vote and the number of seats, paving the way for her party to govern on their own for the first time in three years _ and she did it by moving to the left as her opponents moved in the opposite direction.
The ballot-counting began amid palpable uncertainty about whether the snap election, called more than a month ago, would change anything. Even the premier herself appeared taken aback at the magnitude of her win.
``Whoa! We did it!'' a beaming, gleeful Wynne told cheering supporters in Toronto. ``You have put your trust in us and we will not let you down.''
Wynne said she would ask the lieutenant-governor to reconvene the legislature within 20 days to reintroduce the very same Liberal budget that triggered the campaign when the NDP refused to support it.
Within an hour of the result becoming clear, Hudak (whose austerity platform of smaller government and public-sector job cuts ran smack into a voter brick wall) said he'd resign as leader as soon as a successor is chosen.
``We did not receive the results that we wanted,'' Hudak told dejected supporters at his headquarters in Grimsby, Ont. ``(But) nobody should take this result as an endorsement of the status quo.'' Hudak said he would stay on as a member of the legislature and continue to represent his Niagara-area riding.
The Liberals easily beat the Tories in the popular vote amid a solid rejection of Hudak's pledge to slash 100,000 public-sector jobs as part of a shock deficit-tackling therapy.
They won 59 seats, Hudak's Conservatives took 27 and the New Democrats 21. At dissolution, the Liberals held 48 seats in the 107-seat legislature, the Tories 37 and the NDP 21, with one seat vacant.
At Liberal headquarters in Toronto, stony-faced tension gradually gave way to excitement and delight as it became clear that Wynne had taken the night. A burst of applause erupted when Hudak announced his resignation.
Speaking to a sparse crowd of about 200 supporters in Hamilton, Andrea Horwath (widely pilloried for her lurch to the right and seemingly nebulous campaign) said she would stay on to lead her third-place party.
``New Democrats are fighters and we're going to keep fighting for the things that matter most for families,'' said Horwath, who seemed close to tears.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper congratulated Wynne, saying he looked forward to working with her.
Millions of voters had spent Thursday casting judgment on the scandal-plagued minority Liberal government as Wynne, who became party leader 16 months ago, sought her first mandate.
Wynne spent much of the campaign staving off attacks related to 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.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau congratulated Wynne on the breakthrough that puts her back in the premier's chair, this time with the blessing of voters, not just her party.
More than 9.2 million people were eligible to cast ballots but despite predictions of a low turnout, more than 50 per cent voted this time.