Fate of Ontario Liberals hangs in the balance as polls open

TORONTO – Kathleen Wynne has already acknowledged she won‘t be Ontario‘s premier after today‘s election, but the fate of her Liberal party now rests on how well her last-minute plea for support has resonated with voters as they head to the polls.

Wynne‘s unexpected admission last weekend that her party wouldn‘t win was followed by an appeal to elect as many Liberals as possible, a move she said was meant to prevent either of her NDP or Progressive Conservative rivals from achieving a majority.

With polls suggesting the Liberals could drop to single-digit seats in the legislature, party insiders have said Wynne‘s call was also an 11th-hour effort to hold on to official party status – eight seats are needed to do so.

This election could mark the first time the provincial Liberals – in power for the last 15 years – fall in so short a time from "the pinnacle that is majority government to the abyss," said Dan Rath, a political analyst and co-author of "Not Without Cause: David Peterson‘s Fall From Grace," which looked at a past Liberal premier.

"I think you have to go back almost a century … to find a comparable situation in terms of the challenges the party faces," he said, pointing to the Liberals‘ dramatic decline in the early 1900s and their eventual resurgence in the 1930s under the leadership of Mitch Hepburn.

Rath said the social and cultural shift that propelled Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 was also a factor in Ontario‘s election, where Tory Leader Doug Ford has used populist messaging to appeal to voters.

Rath suggested Wynne‘s plea to save Liberal seats was meant to undermine Andrea Horwath‘s New Democrats in order to pave the way for a Liberal comeback after what could be a devastating defeat.

"The belief is that in the face of a PC government, minority or majority, the Liberals believe they have the best chance of rebuilding in the next few years," he said. "If the NDP form a government, particularly if they manage to fluke out a majority, Andrea Horwath will be premier for two or three terms."

The NDP, Rath explained, would command the progressive vote.

"Within that context it‘s going to be way, way harder for the Liberals to scratch and claw their way back into a semblance … of a credible party," he said.

Regardless of who wins, "it‘s going to be a very different environment for Liberals to wake up into on Friday morning," he said.

Wynne, who is also fighting for re-election in her east Toronto riding, has declined to say whether she‘ll stay on as party leader, saying only that those questions will be easier to answer once the ballots are tallied.

"I sincerely hope that I win my seat and I‘m able to continue to represent the people of Don Valley West but the people of the province will make a decision," said the Liberal leader, who took the party helm in 2013 and led it to a majority a year later.

The premier, who was first elected as a school trustee, has seen her personal popularity ratings drop over her time in government. She has been criticized for decisions that include a spring budget that plunged the province back into deficit, the partial privatization of Hydro One, and the rate at which hikes to minimum wage are being brought in.

Wynne said, however, that she has always made Ontario‘s progress a priority and acknowledged it has been an emotional experience to campaign these last few days knowing she will no longer lead the province.

"It is hard, but honestly it puts me in a place where I‘m thinking about the much bigger issues," she said.

"My sincere hope is that we‘re not ending anything. My sincere hope is that we‘ve built a strong foundation that has meant our economy is strong, has meant our air is cleaner, has meant our water is clean, has meant we have one of the most highly educated workforces in the world. And that all of that allows for a continuation of that building."