It wasn't easy, but Paul Martin and the Liberal Party will head back to Parliament this fall in power with a minority government.
Eleven years after the Jean Chrétien-led Liberals won a landslide victory over the Progressive Conservatives and Kim Campbell, Mr. Martin overcame a lacklustre campaign and fallout from the sponsorship scandal to win a tight race over Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.
"We as Liberals have lost votes. We have lost good members of Parliament," Mr. Martin said during a victory speech early Tuesday morning. "But an election is a time to past judgment and the message in this regard is unmistakable. Canadians expected and expect more from us. As a party and as a government we must do better and we will. I pledge that to you tonight."
The Liberals won 135 ridings, the Conservatives 99, the Bloc Québécois 54 and the NDP 19. All four party leaders won in their ridings.
The Liberals captured about 37 per cent of the popular vote, down from 41 per cent in the 2000 election. The Conservatives managed 30 per cent of the popular vote Monday, the NDP took 15 per cent, the Bloc garnered 13 per cent and the Green party 4 per cent.
"We must move to address the issues that matter most to Canadians: to strengthen health care, to reduce waiting lists, to build a national system of child care and early learning," Mr. Martin said. "That is what I pledge that we will ill do tonight and throughout the next mandate."
The result means a fourth consecutive Liberal mandate, one that will be judged by Mr. Martin's ability to convince at least one rival party to successfully govern the country.
"This is the first minority government in a generation, it's unfamiliar terrain," Mr. Martin said. "But we are up to the challenge and we will embrace it. We will make it work."
The Liberal win was keyed by stronger than expected showings in Ontario and Atlantic Canada that made up for a rough night in Quebec.
The party also fell short on its plans to make gains in the West. Eight Liberals secured seats in British Columbia, but Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was the only Liberal winner in Saskatchewan. Treasury Board Minister Reg Alcock won one of the four Manitoba Liberal seats, but NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis beat Rey Pagtakhan.
During his victory speech, Mr. Martin made a pitch to those regions feeling alienated, promising to work for the good of all Canadians.
"I want it to be known in the most unequivocal terms that I am going to govern for every single region of this country without exception," he said. "Ours will be a national government with strong voices and representation from every part of Canada."
Among the Liberal winners Monday night: Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan added another chapter to her history of close races with a win in Edmonton Centre, former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh won comfortably in British Columbia and former NHL star Ken Dryden easily won his Toronto-area race.
Veterans Affairs Minister John McCallum was re-elected in the Ontario riding of Markham-Unionville, House Speaker Peter Milliken won in the riding of Kingston and the Islands and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler won his Mount Royal riding in Montreal. Reg Alcock, Treasury Board president, was re-elected in his riding of Winnipeg South.
Revenue Minister Stan Keyes, Agriculture Minister Bob Speller and Defence Minister David Pratt top the list of prominent Liberals who won't be returning to Parliament. Heritage Minister Helene Scherrer was also defeated, losing to the Bloc candidate in the riding of Louis-Hebert.
Some of Mr. Martin's star candidates also came up short Monday night, including former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, former NDP MLA Chris Axworthy, former Alberta Liberal Leader Ken Nicol and B.C. Liberal Party president Bill Cunningham, who lost in the B.C. riding of Burnaby-Douglas.
As expected, the Liberals lost a pile of seats in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois was able to capitalize on voters still seething over the sponsorship scandal. The Bloc won 54 of the province's 75 ridings, tying its best performance ever.
Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Jean Lapierre, Prime Minister Paul Martin's Quebec lieutenant, were among the Liberals who managed to win seats.
A minority government result seemed unthinkable when Mr. Martin took the party's helm in early December, but the emergence of the sponsorship scandal left voters in a foul mood and helped Conservative Leader Stephen Harper characterize the party as rife with mismanagement and corruption.
The Liberal campaign was slow to gain momentum and was hindered by party infighting over the party's strategy and direction.
Ontario Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish called the campaign "a comedy of errors" and Jean Chrétien's former chief of staff Jean Pelletier derided the state of the Liberal campaign after Public Works Minister Stephen Owen accused him of being involved in the sponsorship scandal.
There was also internal grumbling about Team Martin's choice to make health care instead of the former finance minister's fiscal record the main focus of the campaign.
The Liberals finally managed to gain some momentum in the days following the televised leaders debates during Week 4 of the campaign. Mr. Harper's over confidence at forming a majority government, an ill-advised Conservative press release suggesting that Mr. Martin supports child pornography and Ralph Klein's poorly timed musings on Alberta's health care reform plan combined to shift voter sentiment away from the Tories.
The Liberals saw that late momentum carry into Monday night in Atlantic Canada, securing 22 seats in the region, compared to seven for the Conservatives and three for the NDP.
Nova Scotia star candidate and former Conservative MP Scott Brison held on to his Kings-Hants seat, while Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Geoff Regan won re-election in Halifax West.
In Prince Edward Island, former Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay won his fifth term in the riding of Cardigan, while former cabinet minister Wayne Easter retained his seat in Malpeque.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Minister of Natural Resources John Efford held his seat in the riding of Avalon.
In New Brunswick, Minister of Labour Claudette Bradshaw and Minister of Infrastructure Andy Scott were both re-elected, while former Conservative John Herron was defeated in the New Brunswick riding of Fundy.