OTTAWA // Canada appears on the brink of a major political realignment and as voters cast ballots today in a national election few can say what the result will be.
Most public opinion polls continue to show Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ruling Conservative Party in the lead. That lead appears to have been shrinking in recent days, however, fuelled by the surprise surge in popularity of Jack Layton's left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP).
It remains to be seen whether the NDP has the organisational strength to capitalise on its strong showing in the polls.
The Liberal Party, which has governed Canada for much of the last century and has never dropped below second, appears to be headed for third place, well behind the Conservatives and the NDP.
Although Canada has never had a true coalition government, party leaders on the campaign trail have been speculating on various power-sharing scenarios.
The Bloc Québécois, whose chief goal is for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada, is in trouble in its home province. While it has dominated the federal political landscape in seat-rich Quebec for 20 years, it is now scrambling to save as many seats as possible as the NDP's popularity sweeps the province.
Today's vote will be the fourth general election in Canada in seven years. On March 25, the House of Commons voted to find Mr Harper's government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose information such as the cost of crime bills it was asking parliament to adopt and of the planned purchase of F-35 fighter jets.
Under Canada's British parliamentary system, the decision by the three opposition parties to outvote Mr Harper's minority Conservative government on a confidence motion forced Mr Harper to ask the governor-general the following day to dissolve parliament and set May 2 as the day for new elections.
The campaign started out quietly enough with Mr Harper urging Canadians to return him to office to ensure a strong economy and prevent the Liberals and NDP from forging a coalition government.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has focused his campaign on accountability, pointing out that Mr Harper's government was the first in Canadian history to have been found in contempt of parliament.
Mr Layton claims the Conservative Party members have refused to co-operate with other parties and failed to focus on issues that affect average Canadians. Among the everyday issues Mr Layton believes to have gone unaddressed are protection of pensions, credit card interest rates, heating fuel taxes and a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Mr Layton has been dogged with questions about his health after fighting prostate cancer and undergoing hip surgery shortly before the campaign.
With so many domestic issues at the forefront and the prospect of a sea change in Canada's political landscape, foreign-policy issues such as Canada's relations with the UAE have been relegated to the back burner.
International issues could gain more prominence in national dialogue should today's election result in an NDP government.
Mr Layton's NDP has been highly critical of the Harper government's handling of relations with the UAE and issues such as visa restrictions and landing rights in Canada for Emirates and Etihad. The NDP has maintained that Mr Harper's government has squandered good relations with the UAE, one of its major trading partners in the Gulf region.
An NDP government would most likely also take a different position on Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan. The NDP has called for a withdrawal of all Canadian military troops from Afghanistan and a shift in focus to diplomacy and development.
On the environment, the NDP has pledged to introduce a cap-and-trade system with hard limits for polluters and a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to a level 80 per cent below that of 1990. The NDP has also said it would use revenue from the auctioning of emission permits to fund the development of renewable energy sources.
At the outset of the campaign, Mr Harper's Conservative Party appeared ready to cruise to the majority government he has wanted ever since he first came to power in 2006.
In the middle of the campaign, however, there was a shift in Quebec, which has 75 of the 308 seats in parliament and a track record of voting that has in the past shaped the final result of national elections.
The NDP has been courting Quebec voters for years by supporting autonomy for the province and defending the use of French in the predominantly French-speaking province. The measures appear to have paid off as Quebec voters began to defect from the Bloc Québécois.
The surge in Quebec also spread to other provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia.
A story reported Friday about a 1996 visit by Mr Layton to a massage parlour raided by police may have the potential to check the NDP's momentum, although early poll results indicate the report may have actually increased support for Mr Layton.
As Canadians head to the polls today the only sure bet is that Canadians will wake up to a substantially different parliament by tomorrow.