HALIFAX — Voters in Nova Scotia made history Tuesday, electing the first NDP government east of Ontario as they delivered a decisive majority win to a party that offered a modest platform and a commitment to balance the province’s books.
NDP Leader Darrell Dexter, a former journalist and lawyer, calmly and effectively persuaded voters to ignore dire warnings from the ruling Conservatives, who demonized the Opposition party as a shifty band of irresponsible, free-spending radicals.
The NDP’s win ends 10 years of Tory rule and, most likely, the short political career of Premier Rodney MacDonald, a former professional fiddler and gym teacher whose awkward style in public seemed to leave voters cold after three, gaffe-prone years in power.
As the results rolled in, the Liberals and Tories were locked in a riding-by-riding battle for the title of official Opposition.
In a province where residents have been known to take a while to embrace newcomers, Dexter worked hard to make himself a familiar face across Nova Scotia during his eight years as party chief.
He has carefully cultivated an image as everyone’s favourite uncle, a stocky Everyman who would be a welcome guest at Sunday dinner.
A firmly moderate, centrist platform also helped.
The NDP had been ahead in the opinion polls for more than two years and was pulling away from its rivals as the 35-day campaign drew to a close.
As voters openly talked about embracing change, the pundits predicted a majority win.
The province’s sagging economy dominated as the main issue of the campaign, which began as a tranquil, springtime distraction but quickly devolved into a mudslinging match marked by accusations the NDP had knowingly accepted questionable donations from a group of unions.
The ruling Conservatives spent much of the race in attack mode, repeatedly warning voters about the perils of voting for the “risky NDP.”
Late in the race, the 37-year-old premier from Cape Breton went so far as to liken Dexter, 51, to a repentant car thief, referring to the NDP’s decision to return the $45,000 in questionable union donations.
Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, contesting his first election as party leader, devoted much of his time to courting the small business sector, which supports about half of the province’s entire workforce.
The former appliance repairman from the Annapolis Valley had promised to run a positive, upbeat campaign. But McNeil, 44, also seized on the NDP’s troubles in the final days, accusing the party of failing to reveal everything it knew about how the union donations were handled.
At dissolution, the Tories held 21 seats in the 52-seat legislature, the NDP had 20 and the Liberals nine. There was one vacancy and one Independent.
The province has had a lingering infatuation with minority governments, having elected three of them in the past four elections.