By Allison Martell
TORONTO (Reuters) - Voting wrapped up across much of the Canadian province of Ontario on Thursday evening, where late opinion polls suggested the Progressive Conservative Party, led by populist Doug Ford, may take control after 15 years under the centrist Liberals.
The contest in Canada's most populous province was reduced to a fight between Ford and the left-leaning New Democratic Party after Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne, premier since 2013 and the first woman to lead the province, dropped to a distant third in the polls.
Ford, 53, is the brother of the late mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, who made international news in 2013 when he admitted to smoking crack cocaine.
With about a third of Canada's population of 36 million, Ontario is Canada's economic engine, home to much of the country's financial and manufacturing sectors and its biggest city, Toronto. It has one of the largest sub-sovereign debts in the world, at nearly C$350 billion ($272 billion) in March.
Polling experts forecast a Ford victory.
"I'm expecting a Conservative majority, even though the popular vote total will be very close between them and the NDP," said Barry Kay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
He predicted the ruling Liberal Party could drop below the eight seats needed to be recognised as an official party in the province's legislature.
Most polling stations opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 9 p.m. (0100 GMT Friday). There were media reports of problems with tabulating machines at a handful of polls.
Elections Ontario, which also has the option of counting ballots by hand, extended voting at six polls, citing an "interruption to voting hours." As a result, four of the province's 124 electoral districts will report results late.
The New Democrats, led since 2009 by Andrea Horwath, 55, surged ahead of Wynne's Liberals in polls in early May, winning strategic voters hoping to block a Ford government. They have not held power in Ontario since 1995.
Horwath was a city councillor in the steel industry city of Hamilton before becoming the first woman to lead her party.
Ford, who served on Toronto's city council when his brother was mayor, has spent much of his life running the family's label business.
"Both of them are untested. Neither have run a large department as a Cabinet minister, let alone a government," said Carleton University business professor Ian Lee, referring to Ford and Horwath. "I think that will give some cause for concern."
Blunt and combative with the media, Ford has drawn comparisons with U.S. President Donald Trump, although like his rivals, Ford has tried to appeal to voters in the immigrant communities that sway elections in many Toronto suburbs.
Ford has promised to lower taxes, spend C$5 billion on the
subway in Toronto and cut some C$6 billion from the provincial budget without eliminating jobs. He has not released a fully costed platform, leaving bond investors unsure that he will be more fiscally prudent than the Liberals.
Horwath has promised to raise corporate taxes, return the Hydro One
A final Ipsos opinion poll released on Wednesday had the PC party with 39 percent of the vote, the NDP with 36 percent and the Liberals with 19 percent, with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Ipsos said Ford's PC party would likely win power with a majority of seats in the province's legislature.
(Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)
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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 07:05 AM