Voters across Ontario are heading to the polls to decide whether or not the battered minority Liberals deserve a fourth mandate, and with pre-election polls showing them in a virtual tie with the Progressive Conservatives, there's a good chance the $90-million snap election will produce another minority government.
Polls opened at 9 a.m. Thursday and will close at 9 p.m.
The province's economic recovery, job creation and the elimination of the $12.5-billion deficit dominated the 40-day campaign, which in the final stages was marred by nasty personal attacks and accusations of voter manipulation.
Premier Kathleen Wynne is hoping to capitalize on widespread concerns over Tory Leader Tim Hudak's pledge to slash 100,000 public sector jobs and cut government spending in order to balance the books in two years. She's been portraying the Liberals as a party that believes in government support, be that through a provincial pension plan or cash to entice businesses to invest in the province, even if that means carrying a deficit.
Wynne began her day with her usual morning run, but called out to watching reporters, "Everybody going out to vote?" Later on, she showed up at a polling station in her Toronto riding to cast her ballot.
Hudak has put all his chips on his Million Jobs Plan, which is based on the assumption that shrinking government, cutting corporate taxes and reducing the size of the public sector will stimulate the economy and create a million jobs over the next eight years. Some economists have raised questions about the math behind his plan, suggesting the Tories have mistakenly inflated the job numbers.
Hudak made one final pitch for voter support at Pearson International Airport on Thursday, standing in front of a plane to say he'd help create jobs in Ontario so young people don't have to fly to Alberta for work.
The Tory leader said he was disappointed that the Liberals mounted what he termed a negative campaign, saying he was happy to focus instead on a positive message about creating jobs.
"If you have no new ideas for jobs and you run a campaign of fear, all you care about is keeping your own job. I want to create more jobs for young men and young women," he said.
Nipping at the front-runners' heels are the New Democrats, the party that triggered the election when their leader Andrea Horwath refused to support the NDP-friendly Liberal budget last month. Horwath has been trying to distinguish her party as a real alternative, saying voters shouldn't have to choose between the "corrupt" Liberals and the Tories' "crazy" platform.
Horwath rallied some NDP volunteers Thursday morning in Toronto's Kensington Market and then went mainstreeting in Hamilton.
After a long campaign and a particularly gruelling schedule over the last days, Horwath said in Hamilton she's glad she survived, and now will relax a bit before the polls close.
"I was hoping to get to the hotel that I'm at for a little while to maybe get some swimming in or something like that, just something to kind of get my mind off of everything because it's been a long campaign and it's going to be a long night," she said in Hamilton.
Political observers predict that the equally uninspiring choices at the ballot box, the negative tone of the campaigns and the unprecedented involvement of some labour groups, including the anti-Hudak campaigns launched by the unions representing journalists and members of the provincial police, will likely lead to a disappointing voter turnout.
"If at the end of the day we end up with a minority government that doesn't actually look substantively different from where we left off, I wouldn't say that this is a stalemate and the crisis continues," said Cristine de Clercy, a director of the Leadership and Democracy Lab at Western University.
"I would interpret that as the voters saying 'given the difficult economic context we were not persuaded enough to strongly go one way or the other so we're staying with the status quo.'"
Some union leaders, who consider Hudak their No.1 enemy, have called for strategic voting, asking their members to make sure the Tory leader does not become the next premier.
Hudak, however, has refused to backtrack, saying he is the only party leader being honest with Ontarians about the cuts required to balance the province's books.
"It's only fair to be straight with people about the need to rein in the cost and size of government instead of making expensive campaign promises that can't be kept," Hudak said, while also accusing the Liberals of fear-mongering.
"We've talked every day about our optimistic and bold plan to get people back to work ... I know that hope is going to trump fear come Thursday night."
The Tories worked hard to focus their campaign on the scandals plaguing the Liberal government by renewing their calls for a judicial inquiry into the cancellation of two unpopular gas plants by former premier Dalton McGuinty before the last provincial election in 2011.
They also attempted to raise fresh questions about Wynne's credibility by making public documents that showed her cabinet planned to spend over $300 million to bail out a downtown Toronto real estate development after learning that the MaRS innovation and research complex would default on a government loan.
Wynne spent a considerable amount of time during the campaign defending herself and her party against accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement — issues that have plagued her ever since she was sworn in as premier following a leadership race more than a year ago.
The Liberal leader was forced to apologize during the televised leaders' debate when both Hudak and Horwath hammered her over the gas plants cancellation, which the province's auditor general has said could cost up to $1.1 billion.
She ramped up her rhetoric over the course of the campaign, suggesting the Tories would plunge the province back towards a recession and urged voters, especially NDP supporters, to vote for her party in an effort to stop Hudak from taking power.
"If people don't vote for our plan, then Tim Hudak will be the premier, because it is a tight enough race that that is what will happen," Wynne said. "If you want a progressive government, you want a progressive plan that presents opportunity and security for the people of Ontario, that's the Ontario Liberal Party."
Wynne, however, has said that if Hudak wins the most seats in the election but falls short of a majority she will allow him to "attempt" to form a government. But she's refused to speculate on a possible coalition or partnership with the NDP if a minority Tory government is short-lived.
Horwath, meanwhile, has ruled out a coalition with the Tories while refusing to explicity say if she'd prop up either the Liberals or the Tories in a minorty government, saying she is in it to win it.
The NDP leader has faced criticism from some high-profile New Democrats, who see her push to make the party more mainstream and business friendly as a betrayal of traditional NDP values. But Horwath has shrugged it off, saying her goal is to become premier.
"I listen to Ontarians, I spend time connecting with them, getting a sense of what their needs are," she said. "They don't have to choose between the bad ethics of the Liberals and the bad math of Mr. Hudak. They can actually choose a party that has proven that we listen to what Ontarians have to say."
There are 107 ridings at stake in Ontario's election. In the last legislative session the Liberals held 48 seats, the Progressive Conservatives had 37 and the NDP held 21 while one seat was vacant.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Andrea Horwath had ruled out propping up a Tory government.