The Ontario Liberal party steamrolled the Progressive Conservatives Thursday night, ending eight years of Tory rule in the province by easily forming a new majority government.
Dalton McGuinty, the man who the Tories labelled as "not up to the job," has bounced back from a 1999 election loss to defeat Ernie Eves and become the province's premier-elect.
"The people of Ontario have chosen change," Mr. McGuinty told noisy supporters at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa after the two other leaders conceded.
"And they have chosen more than just change in terms of their government. They have chosen something more profound.
"They've rejected the politics of division and have chosen instead to work together."
Howard Hampton and the New Democratic Party also suffered a serious blow, falling short of the eight seats required for official party status. While the NDP lost two seats, it actually increased its vote by 2.6 percentage points from 1999.
All three party leaders managed to retain their seats comfortably.
The Liberal party were elected in 72 ridings Thursday night, the Progressive Conservatives in 24 and the New Democratic Party in seven. To claim a majority, a party must win 52 out of 103 seats in the provincial legislature.
Across the province, the Liberals won 46.4 per cent of the popular vote.
When the legislature was dissolved, the Tories held 56 seats, the Liberals 36 and the NDP nine. One seat was held by an independent and another was vacant.
The Liberal victory marks the first Ontario Liberal majority in 16 years and the first time in almost 70 years that a sitting Conservative premier in Ontario has lost an election outright.
In Toronto, the province's largest city, the Tories were shutout. The Liberals were elected in 19 of the city's 22 ridings, while the NDP won the three other spots.
The Conservatives lost ground in the key "905" region, named for the telephone area code of the middle-class suburban neighbourhoods surrounding Toronto.
The 905 region embraced the Tory tax-cut mantra, helping to propel Mr. Harris to power eight years ago. Thursday night, the Liberals took 12 of the 16 ridings, while the Tories clung to the remaining four.
Of 11 northern ridings in the province, the Tories have managed to win only one seat -- Norm Miller in Mr. Eves' old riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka. The NDP won three seats including two by Mr. Hampton and his wife Shelley Martel. The Liberals dominated the rest.
Ultimately, Mr. Eves and the Tories were unable to overcome voter dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the Walkerton water tragedy, the possible sale of Hydro One, the SARS outbreak, the August blackout and the Aylmer packing plant tainted meat investigation.
Mr. McGuinty ran on a Liberal platform that promised to pump more funding in to health care and education, while reversing $550-million in Tory-implemented corporate tax cuts and freezing all other taxes at current levels.
The 48-year-old Ottawa lawyer encouraged voters to "take the high road" and choose change in his television election ads, while the Tories opened the campaign with a series of attack ads aimed at the Liberal leader.
"Achieving real, positive change won't be easy," Mr. McGuinty said at his victory speech. "It won't happen overnight. It is going to take time. We won't be perfect. We'll make our share of mistakes, but we will succeed.
"The reason that we're going to succeed is that we're going to remember the basics: This victory belongs to the people. This government belongs to the people. We have been elected to serve the people and there is no room in their government for complacency or arrogance."
Mr. Eves, who served six years as finance minister under Mr. Harris during the "Common Sense Revolution," promised more tax cuts and a ban on strikes by teachers and support staff as well as a ban on lockouts during the school year.
His campaign will be remembered for a strange press release that referred to Mr. McGuinty as a "evil reptilian kitten-eater from outer space." After saying personal attacks had no place in the race to be premier Mr. Eves told reporters that Mr. McGuinty says "whatever pops into his little sharp pointy head." He later apologized.
"Earlier this evening, I phoned Dalton and congratulated him and his team," Mr. Eves told Tory supporters in his home riding Thursday night.
"Today, the people of Ontario have decided the time has come to change the government. We accept their decision and we respect their decision," he said, noting that his party has "changed the face" of Ontario and federal politics.
Eleven Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers are on the way out after Thursday's vote.
Helen Johns, the agriculture minister who came under fire for a recent tainted-meat scandal and Dianne Cunningham, universities minister and a senior member of the Eves cabinet, are out. David Tsubouchi, community services minister Brenda Elliott and municipal affairs minister David Young also lost .
Cabinet heavyweight Health Minister Tony Clement, lost in his riding of Brampton West-Mississauga, while finance minister Janet Ecker lost in the riding of Pickering-Ajax-Uxbridge.
Several did manage to hold on to their seats, including Norm Sterling, a former attorney general, minister of public safety Bob Runciman and environment minister Jim Wilson
Mr. Hampton, who once again showed a knack for creative stunts and photo-ops, continually drove home the message that the NDP would keep all of the province's essential services in public hands.
In his speech Thursday night Mr. Hampton said that he excepted the voters' will and expressed relief that eight years of majority conservative government were coming to an end. He promised to continue to be a presence at Queens Park.
"The voters have also said we need New Democrats in the legislature," he said in his concession speech. "Not enough, but they said they need us in the legislature and literally millions of Ontarians voted in support of our program and voted in support of what we stand for."
Thursday's convincing Liberal win marks a stark reversal from the province's last election in 1999, when the Conservatives, led by Mike Harris, captured 59 seats with 45 per cent of the votes. The Liberals, lead by Mr. McGuinty, won 35 seats with 40 per cent of the votes and the New Democrats took nine seats with 12.5 per cent of the votes.
With a report from Canadian Press