June 10, 2014 / 7:14 PM / in 3 years

Ontario election race a toss-up ahead of Thursday vote

TORONTO, June 10 (Reuters) - Two days before election day in the Canadian province of Ontario and polls show a dead heat between a left-leaning Liberal government that many feel has overstayed its welcome and an austerity-minded Conservative opposition that has failed to capture the imagination of voters.

Voters will decide on Thursday whether to return Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals to power in Canada’s most populous province or hand the reins to Tim Hudak’s Conservatives. The polls show they are finding it a grim choice.

“We have a sizable portion of the electorate that are just flummoxed, they don’t know what to do,” said Frank Graves, president of polling company Ekos Research Associates.

“They’re caught between real disdain for the (Liberals) over ethics and accountability issues, but equally strong fears of what actually would happen with Mr. Hudak in the chair.”

Ontario accounts for about 40 percent of Canada’s economy and is home to the country’s auto and financial industries. But the province of close to 13 million people has been battling slow growth and huge government deficits since the 2008 financial crisis. Its debt is C$288 billion ($263.81 billion).

According to an Ekos poll, the Liberals lead with 34.7 percent, just ahead of the Conservatives at 34.5 percent. The New Democratic Party, led by Andrea Horwath, has 19.8 percent.

The numbers suggest that, barring a wide swing in the final two days, whomever wins will have a minority in the provincial assembly and will have to gain the support of another party to pass legislation.

Wynne has pledged to ramp up spending to stimulate the economy and to create a provincial pension plan, while slaying Ontario’s deficit, C$11.3 billion this year, by 2017-18.

But she has struggled with a scandal over a decision to cancel the construction of gas-fired power plants made by her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, whom she replaced in February 2013.

McGuinty canceled construction of the two plants in the runup to the 2011 election. The Liberals initially estimated the cost of the cancellations at C$230 million, but the province’s auditor-general has since said it will likely be three times that.

Hudak and Horwath have tried to tie the scandal to Wynne, criticizing her support of the cancellations at the time.

Hudak, meanwhile, has vowed to slash corporate taxes and cut 100,000 public sector jobs, while at the same time pledging to generate a million jobs over eight years. He also plans to kill the deficit a year earlier than the Liberals.

Economists have said Hudak’s job creation plan uses faulty math and vastly overestimates how many jobs would be created.

Canada’s largest circulation daily, the Toronto Star, has endorsed the Liberals, while the second largest daily, the Globe and Mail, gave its support to the Conservatives in an editorial this week that typifies the tone of the campaign.

“Are (the Conservatives) the ideal alternative? No, far from it. Are they a viable alternative? Yes, barely,” the paper said.

$1=$1.09 Canadian Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Peter Galloway

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