VICTORIA, British Columbia (Reuters) - The incumbent Liberal Party won an election in the Canadian Pacific province of British Columbia on Tuesday, in a stunning comeback that defied the pollsters who had expected voters to boot the party out of power.
The Liberals, in power for more than a decade, lost support after the introduction, and then cancellation, of an unpopular sales tax. But they gained momentum late in an election campaign that focused on the economy, balanced budgets and controlled spending.
"Tonight we have received a mandate from the people of British Columbia and I say to the citizens of British Columbia you have humbled us," Premier Christy Clark said in a speech accepting her party's victory.
"During this campaign people told us that they want to know we will be sharing the economic benefits of this province with everyone. They told us that they wanted us to balance economic and environmental issues. We will heed those concerns."
A majority victory was predicted by several networks including CTV News and CBC.
At the time of her speech, Clark was still in a tight race with the New Democrats (NDP) challenger for her seat and the winner had yet to be decided.
The Liberals' victory was characterized as shocking by analysts because the party had trailed the left-leaning NDP by about 20 percentage points heading into the campaign.
Provisional returns at about 11:45 p.m. Pacific Time (0645 GMT Wednesday) showed the Liberals had won, or were ahead, in 50 of the 85 seats in the provincial legislature, while the NDP were heading for 33 seats. Forty-three seats are needed for a majority.
The Liberals held 45 seats in the previous legislature, the NDP had 36, and four were held by independents.
The turning point in the campaign seemed to be Clark's ability to play up fears that the NDP would be poor stewards of Canada's fourth-largest provincial economy.
NDP leader Adrian Dix opposed both the proposed C$6 billion ($5.9 billion) Enbridge Inc Northern Gateway pipeline that would ship 525,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day from Alberta to the B.C. coast, and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP's plan to more than double the size of its Trans Mountain pipeline carrying crude oil from Edmonton, Alberta, to the coast.
Dix had promised to revoke an agreement the Liberals had signed under which British Columbia would recognize whatever federal decision was taken after an environmental review of the Northern Gateway pipeline, due at the end of this year.
British Columbia, which includes large parts of the Canadian Rockies as well as the rugged and often undeveloped Pacific coast, prides itself on its environmental policies. Greenpeace was founded there in 1971.
Green Party candidate Andrew Weaver won the party's first seat in a provincial legislature in Canada on Tuesday.
($1 = 1.0160 Canadian dollars)
Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Pravin Char