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Sea change in Canada as Liberals reclaim PM's office

TORONTO -- - Canadian voters emphatically reclaimed their country's liberal identity, putting Justin Trudeau, the youthful son of one of the country's most dynamic politicians, in the prime minister's office, and ending 10 years of leadership by Stephen Harper, whose dream was to recast Canada as a more conservative country.

The victory in Monday's election by Trudeau's Liberal Party was stunning.

The Liberals were on a path to win at least 184 seats out of 338 - a parliamentary majority that will allow Trudeau to govern without relying on other parties. Harper's Conservatives were winning 100. The Liberals received 39.5 percent of the overall vote compared to 32 percent for the Conservatives and 19.6 for the New Democrats.

Trudeau's Liberals had been favored to win the most seats, but few expected the final margin of victory.

"Tonight Canada is becoming the country it was before," Trudeau told a victory rally in Montreal.

He said positive politics led to his victory.

"We beat fear with hope," Trudeau said. "We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together. Most of all, we defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less."

Harper, one of the longest-serving Western leaders, stepped down as the head of the Conservatives, the party said in a statement issued as the scope of the loss became apparent.

Tall and trim, Trudeau, 43, channels the star power - if not quite the political heft - of his father, who swept to power in 1968 on a wave of support dubbed "Trudeaumania."

Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister until 1984 with a short interruption, remains one of the few Canadian politicians known in America, his charisma often drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy.

Justin Trudeau, a former school teacher and member of Parliament since 2008, becomes the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history and has been likened to Barack Obama.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau greets his sons Justin (left), Sacha (right) and Michel after returning home from a foreign trip to Ottawa, in a 1983 file photo
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau greets his sons Justin (left), Sacha (right) and Michel after returning home from a foreign trip to Ottawa, in a 1983 file photo REUTERS

Trudeau has re-energized the Liberal Party since its worst electoral defeat four years ago when it won just 34 seats and finished third behind the traditionally weaker left-of-center New Democrat Party. The Liberal Party becomes the first in Canada's history to go from third to first. They "smashed the record for the number of seats gained from one election to the next," the Reuters news service points out.

Trudeau promises to raise taxes on the rich and run deficits for three years to boost government spending.

His pledge to run deficits "rattled financial markets ahead of the vote, and the Canadian dollar weakened on news of his victory," Reuters reports.

His late father, who took office in 1968 and led Canada for most of the next 16 years, is a storied name in Canadian history, responsible for the country's version of the Bill of Rights.

A bachelor when he became prime minister, Pierre Trudeau dated actresses Barbra Streisand and Kim Cattrall and married a 22-year-old while in office.

Canada has shifted to the center-right under Harper, who has lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation and clashed with the Obama administration over the Keystone XL pipeline.

"The people are never wrong," Harper told supporters in Calgary. "The disappointment is my responsibility and mine alone."

Justin Trudeau during news conference in Calgary, Alberta on October 18, 2015
Justin Trudeau during news conference in Calgary, Alberta on October 18, 2015 REUTERS

Harper said he had called Trudeau to congratulate him.

The Trudeau victory will ease tensions with the U.S. Although Trudeau supports the Keystone pipeline, he argues relations should not hinge on the project. Harper has clashed with the Obama administration over other issues, including the recently reached Iran nuclear deal.

Trudeau has said he'll patch up Canada's relations with the U.S., withdraw Canada from the combat mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in favor of humanitarian aid and training, and join the fight against climate change, Reuters notes.

Trudeau's opponents pilloried him as too inexperienced, but Trudeau embraced his boyish image on Election Day. Sporting jeans and a varsity letter jacket, he posed for a photo standing on the thighs of two his colleagues to make a cheerleading pyramid, his campaign plane in the backdrop with "Trudeau 2015" painted in large red letters.

"A sea of change here. We are used to high tides in Atlantic Canada. This is not what we hoped for," said Peter MacKay, a former senior Conservative cabinet minister, shortly after polls closed in Atlantic Canada.

The Liberals were elected or were leading in 184 districts, with Trudeau winning his Montreal district. The party needed 170 to gain a majority.

The Conservatives were next with 102, followed by the New Democrats at 41 and Bloc Quebecois with 10. The Liberals received 39.5 percent of the overall vote compared to 32.1 percent for the Conservatives and 19.4 for the New Democrats.

Harper, 56, visited districts he won in the 2011 election in an attempt to hang onto them. On Saturday, he posed with Toronto's former crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, in a conservative suburb.

Harper had said he would step down if his party didn't win the most seats.

Former colleagues of Harper said he would be personally devastated to lose to a Trudeau, the liberal legacy he entered politics to destroy. Harper's long-term goal was to kill the widely entrenched notion that the Liberals - the party of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien - are the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.

Hurt when Canada entered a mild recession earlier this year, Harper made a controversy over the Islamic face veil a focus of his campaign, a decision his opponents seized on to depict him as a divisive leader.

"Canadians rejected the politics of fear and division," New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair said of the Harper Conservatives.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said Canadians rallied around the Liberals as the anti-Harper vote.

The New Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, falling to third place after winning official opposition status in the last election. "I congratulated Mr. Trudeau on his exceptional achievement," Mulcair said.

Paula Mcelhinney, 52, from Toronto, voted Liberal to get rid of Harper.

"I want to get him out, it's about time we have a new leader. It's time for a change," she said.

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