Until a few days ago, Monday's election looked set to give Canada another mandate for the Conservative government. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be out of a job if polls are right in predicting a late surge for the left.
The unexpected gains for the New Democratic Party have upended previous soundings that predicted the Conservatives would get enough votes to form a minority government, perhaps even a majority one. Now a new scenario has emerged in which the New Democrats and the Liberals together win enough seats to eventually form a coalition.
"We've had an earthquake here, and it's all happening very quickly," said Nelson Wiseman, professor at the University of Toronto, after EKOS, a private polling company, gave the Conservatives 33.7 percent, the New Democrats 28 and the Liberals 23.7. The pollsters said they questioned 3,000 voters and gave a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points. A series of other polls have since reported similar results.
It was a shock on two levels: for suggesting the Conservatives might be edged out of office by a late surge, and for predicting that the New Democrats would eclipse the Liberals, throughout Canadian history the party either in power or leading the opposition.
The sudden shift reflected in the polls raised another, even more improbable scenario: that the New Democrats would win the most votes and leader Jack Layton, a little known figure outside Canada, would become prime minister. A poll published Thursday by the Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey put Layton's party just 5 percentage points behind the Conservatives.
Harper, in power since 2006, has won two elections but never with a majority. He has managed to nudge an instinctively center-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, backed the oil industry against the environmental lobby, upped military spending and extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals -- the party of Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau -- as the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Harper is counting on the economy to help him. Canada has outperformed other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis.