Dalton McGuinty and his Liberals will return to Queen's Park with a minority government, falling just short of winning a third consecutive majority.
This will be the first minority government in Ontario since Liberal David Peterson led one from 1985 to 1987.
Although the Liberal leader held on to power, he ended up with 53 seats, just one short of the magic number required to form a majority in the 107-seat legislature. Mr. McGuinty lost 19 seats from the 72 he had won in the 2007 election campaign.
"We succeeded in our goal of electing an experienced Liberal government," Mr. McGuinty told the crowd gathered at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa early Friday morning. He added that all of the results were still not final. "A few weeks ago, we were counted out, but we didn't listen to the naysayers."
He made no mention of how he will govern with his minority.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, meanwhile, gained 12 seats, increasing his party's presence in the legislature from the 25 seats the Tories had when the writ was dropped last month, but not doing enough to win. "Although, the result is not the one we hoped for, we do accept it," he said after he spoke to Mr. McGuinty and congratulated him on his victory. "The people of Ontario have put Dalton McGuinty on a much shorter leash," he said.
This campaign, however, was Mr. Hudak's to lose – and he faltered right out of the gate in his reaction to the Liberal's campaign pledge to reward small businesses that hired new Canadians.
Mr. Hudak referred to them as "foreign workers" and was pilloried by the Liberals, who accused him of divisive "us-and-them" politics.
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath won her riding and increased her party's seat count from 10 to 17 but was not able to emulate the so-called "orange crush" that saw Jack Layton, the late federal NDP leader, nearly sweep Quebec and become the official opposition in the May 2 federal campaign.
"New Democrats have the strongest mandate we have had in 20 years," she told the crowd assembled at Hamilton headquarters.
There had been intense speculation after the leaders' debate, in which she was seen to win, that she could play the role of kingmaker in a minority government. Ms. Horwath told reporters, in a scrum following her election night speech, that she had not talked with the other leaders about the minority situation. "No decisions have been made in that regard," she said.
News of a Liberal victory Thursday night did nothing to dampen spirits at Ms. Horwath's campaign headquarters. Instead, supporters were fired up by the gains the NDP appeared set to make across the province.
As every seat gain was announced – including a possible sweep of the city of Hamilton – the room burst into cheers.
"Andrea really makes me proud to be a woman," said Kimberly Crawley, 27, a Hamilton IT specialist.
Joe DiFrancesco, 20, who lives in Ms. Horwath's riding, said the party's federal breakthrough helped voters see that the party could win.
"They're being more recognized for the change that they want," he said. "Becoming the official opposition federally, that's really impressive for the NDP."
In the end, Ontarians decided to stay with what they know, overcoming doubts that an eight-year-old Liberal government was stale and complacent. They also rejected Mr. Hudak's attempts to make the campaign a referendum on Mr. McGuinty's record.
The Progressive Conservative leader repeatedly suggested that Mr. McGuinty had a hidden agenda to raise taxes. This, after the Liberal leader broke his promise during the 2003 campaign that he would not raise taxes by introducing a health premium after taking office.
In this contest, Mr. McGuinty campaigned hard on the fact that he was an experienced, sound steward of the economy. He successfully positioned himself as the only leader who could go toe-to-toe on the national stage with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In fact, he even suggested that with a Harper Conservative majority government – mainly from Western Canada – his Liberals in Ontario could provide a much-needed balance.
So far this political season, the incumbents have the edge – this week saw the Liberals returned in Prince Edward Island and the NDP win its fourth consecutive government in Manitoba. Next week, voters go to the polls in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the incumbent Conservatives are expected to be re-elected.