The Canadian Press is projecting a United Conservative Party majority government in Alberta.
Leader Danielle Smith and her party rode a wave of rural support to victory, but the NDP made inroads in the traditional conservative stronghold of Calgary.
Smith was the first candidate to be called as winner in her respective riding of Brooks-Medicine Hat.
Alberta’s United Conservatives jumped out to a lead over the NDP in early returns tonight in what has been forecast to be a tight race in the provincial election.
Meanwhile, advance polls set a record of more than 758,000 votes cast, eclipsing the previous record of more than 700,000 in 2019.
Other key cabinet members were also returned, including Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, Agriculture Minister Nate Horner, Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson and Affordability and Utilities Minister Matt Jones.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley won her seat in Edmonton-Strathcona for a fifth time and her party was on track to sweep the capital.
No election winner had been called more than two hours after polls closed at 8 p.m. Elections Alberta said in a statement it was moving as fast as possible.
“We are not seeing any issues at this time, but understand that people are keen to see the results,” said Elections Alberta in a statement.
“Processing the votes takes some time. The hand count of today’s ballot is occurring.”
To win, the NDP needed to flip 20 seats in the 87-seat legislature and early results showed promise in multiple Calgary constituencies outside of traditional UCP core support in the south end of the city.
UCP cabinet heavyweights in the city were facing stiff challenges from the NDP, including Justice Minister Tyler Shandro in Calgary-Acadia and Health Minister Jason Copping in Calgary-Varsity.
Calgary cabinet minister Nicholas Milliken, responsible for mental health and addiction, was defeated in Calgary-Currie by the NDP’s Janet Eremenko.
Smith’s two deputy premiers were also in tough against Notley’s crew: Kaycee Madu in Edmonton-South West and Nathan Neudorf in Lethbridge-East.
The UCP was seeking a second mandate while the NDP was fighting to regain the majority government it lost to the UCP in 2019.
Voter turnout was expected to be strong, given advance polls set a record of 758,540 votes cast, eclipsing the previous record of more than 700,000 in 2019.
The campaign took place alongside a record-breaking spring for wildfires in Alberta. Ten communities were under evacuation orders Monday.
Elections Alberta set up alternate voting locations for those displaced. Evacuation was added as an eligible reason to vote by special ballot and mobile voting stations were placed in evacuation centres.
To win, the NDP would have to continue its dominance in Edmonton, flip the majority in Calgary and hope for some help in smaller cities, while defeating scores of UCP incumbents including cabinet ministers.
The UCP won 63 seats under then-leader Jason Kenney in 2019 to 24 for Notley’s NDP in the 87-seat legislature.
Polls suggested the UCP should continue its near total domination in rural areas and smaller centres, giving it a cushion of up to 40 or so seats to reach the 44 needed to form a majority government.
The month-long campaign was dominated by the economy and health care.
Albertans are struggling with high costs for consumer goods, a shortage of family doctors and long waits in emergency rooms.
Smith promised to keep Alberta the lowest tax regime in Canada.
Her government, she said, would introduce a law to mandate a referendum before any personal or corporate income tax hikes. There would also be tax changes to benefit those making more than $60,000 a year, at a cost of $1 billion annually to the treasury.
The NDP promised to maintain Alberta’s status as Canada’s lowest tax regime. It pledged to end the tax on small businesses and raise the corporate income tax to 11 per cent from eight per cent, which it said would help pay for investments in health and education while keeping the books balanced and maintaining the lowest corporate rate in Canada.
The NDP also promised legislation to counteract UCP policies that hiked the cost of utilities, auto insurance, a range of fees and tuition.
Both leaders promised to preserve the publicly funded health system while creating more primary care teams — physicians accompanied by related specialists such as nurses and therapists — so more Albertans are able to access a family doctor and not clog emergency wards for care.
Polls showed trust was a key issue, with Notley viewed more favourably than her party and vice versa for Smith.
Smith was dogged during the campaign by past comments she made comparing those who took the COVID-19 vaccine to credulous followers of Adolf Hitler. A report also came out mid-campaign from the province’s ethics commissioner that concluded Smith undermined the rule of law by pressuring her justice minister to end the criminal court case of a COVID-19 protester.
The future isn’t clear for Jennifer Johnson, the winning UCP candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka.
During the campaign, Johnson apologized for comments last year comparing transgender students to feces. Smith has said Johnson would not sit in the UCP caucus because of the remarks but later said, when asked about Johnson, that she believes in redemption and second chances.