TORONTO — Canadians voted Monday to decide whether to extend Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's near-decade in power or return Canada to its more liberal roots.
Harper has trailed in opinion polls behind Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Canada has pivoted 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 elder Trudeau, 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. His son, who has re-energized the Liberal Party since its devastating electoral losses four years ago, promises to raise taxes on the rich and run deficits for three years to boost government spending.
"We have a chance to bring real change to Canada and bring an end to the Harper decade," Justin Trudeau said in Harper's adopted home province of Alberta, traditionally a Conservative stronghold.
Harper warns a Liberal victory would tear down everything his Conservatives have achieved.
"The other guys want to take us back to the days where they could get their hands on as much money as possible and spend it on bureaucracy and special interests. We have been building a Canada over the past few years that they do not like," Harper said Sunday during a campaign appearance.
The prime minister tweeted Monday, "Today, I'm asking you to vote Conservative to protect Canadian jobs and our economy."
A Trudeau victory would 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.
David Axelrod, who helped mastermind Obama's 2008 campaign and offered advice to Trudeau's team, tweeted congratulations to Trudeau's top advisers for running a great campaign and said "Hope beats fear."
Trudeau, a 43-year-old former school teacher and member of Parliament since 2008, would become the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history if he wins.
His 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 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.
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.
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.
The Liberals lead the Conservatives by almost 9 percentage points. According to the CTV/Globe and Mail/Nanos Nightly Tracking Poll, the Liberals are at 39.1 percent, followed by the Conservatives at 30.5 percent. The New Democrats are at 19.7 percent. The margin of error for the survey of 800 respondents is 3.7 percentage points.
Greg Curtis, 29, of New Brunswick, said ousting Harper was his main concern as he cast his ballot. "I've only voted Green before but decided I'd rather vote for the person who is most likely to beat the Conservative," he said.
But Harper's "protect our economy" message resonated with Anne Collins, a 61-year-old Toronto voter.
"It was a tough decision for me. I normally vote Conservative, but this election I wavered between him and the other parties because Harper can be a bit of a bully," Collis said. "But in the end I like what he's done."
A minority government in the 338-seat Parliament appears likely no matter which party wins the most seats, said Tom Flanagan, Harper's former campaign manager. That would mean the winning party would have a shaky hold on power and need to rely on another party to pass legislation. Harper has said he'll step down as Conservative leader if his party loses.
If the Conservatives win the most seats, the Liberals and a third party, the New Democrats, say they'll defeat Harper's party in a vote in Parliament, raising the possibility of a coalition government.
"It's hard for me to see a path for his survival now," Flanagan said. "When you play out all the scenarios they all seem to end with a defeat on election night or a very tenuous victory that would not allow Harper to survive very long."
Associated Press writer Charmaine Noronha contributed to this report.