The New Democrats were off to an early lead in several key constituencies Tuesday as a handful of polls began reporting results in Manitoba's historic election and NDP Leader Wab Kinew won back his seat in the legislature.
The NDP were ahead in many areas of Winnipeg, including key ridings that had been held by members of the Progressive Conservative cabinet.
The provincial capital, where 32 of the 57 legislature seats are, is an important battleground for both parties.
Opinion polls suggested the New Democrats would have a lead in the important urban areas. Tory support dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospitals struggled to deal with rising case numbers and dozens of intensive-care patients were flown to other provinces.
If Heather Stefanson leads the incumbent Progressive Conservatives to a third consecutive majority, she would become the first woman to be elected premier in a Manitoba general election. Stefanson took over the top spot midterm in a party leadership race after former premier Brian Pallister retired in 2021.
If the New Democrats win after seven years in Opposition, Kinew would become the first First Nations premier of a province in Canada. His late father was not allowed to vote as a young man under Canadian law at the time.
The Manitoba Liberals were leading in one constituency, Tyndall Park, which Cindy Lamoureux has held since 2016. The party was trailing in the other two seats it held ahead of the election, the long-held River Heights riding under Jon Gerrard and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont’s St. Boniface riding.
There were reports of some technical difficulties with voting machines throughout the day.
Mike Ambrose, the director of communications for Elections Manitoba, said there were isolated issues, including power interruptions as a series of thunderstorms rolled through the province. In those cases, manual processes were used to make sure people could vote, he said.
People began streaming in to election headquarters for the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats and prepared for results to start rolling in after polls closed.
Former NDP cabinet minister Gord Mackintosh, who retired in 2016, said the New Democrats ran a disciplined campaign.
“The NDP campaign has been very sure-footed and really sympathetic to, I think, the key issues Manitobans are grappling with,” he said from NDP election headquarters.
The NDP, which won 18 seats in the last election, made health care the central issue of its campaign. Kinew promised to reopen three hospital emergency departments that were downgraded by the Tory government. He was on offence throughout the campaign, holding press conferences in Tory-held areas and highlighting the local candidate.
"It's our belief that this is the number 1 issue in Manitoba that needs attention," Kinew said Monday at his last campaign press conference.
The NDP made promises in other areas, such as more child-care spaces, a one-year freeze on hydroelectricity rates and a temporary suspension of the 14-cent-per-litre fuel tax until inflation subsides.
The Tories, who won 36 seats in the last election, promised to hire more health-care workers and build hospital infrastructure.
They also pledged major tax cuts to help people with inflation and to boost the economy. They promised to reduce personal income taxes and phase out a tax that employers pay on their total annual payroll.
Stefanson maintained a low profile at points during the campaign. She did not hold a news conference or media scrum in Winnipeg between Sept. 22 and the final day of the campaign, and she did not invite reporters to see her cast her ballot Tuesday.
The Tories took out ads to portray the NDP as a risk to the economy and the province's finances. They pointed to final budget figures released last week, which said the province recorded a surplus in the 2022-23 fiscal year for only the second time since 2009.
"We are the only party with a plan to pay for the necessary services that Manitobans rely on," Stefanson said Monday.
The Tories went on the offensive over calls to search the private Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of two Indigenous women believed to have been killed last year. Police have charged a man with first-degree murder in their deaths.
The Tories took out ads, including large billboards, promising they would "stand firm" in opposing a landfill search due to safety concerns over asbestos and other toxic material.
The ads were met with criticism from many quarters — Indigenous leaders, federal cabinet minister Marc Miller, and David McLaughlin, who managed Manitoba Tory campaigns under Pallister in 2016 and 2019.
Stefanson defended the ads. She said it was a hard decision to reject a search, but worker safety and avoiding the risk of cancer and other diseases was paramount.
She pointed to a federally funded study that said a search is feasible but would require special measures to reduce risk. It also said a search could take up to three years, cost up to $184 million and have no guarantee of success.
Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont promised to have a search conducted.
Lamont was hoping to add to the three seats the Liberals last held in the legislature. Recent opinion polls suggested their support had dropped.