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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta could be poised for its first new government in 44 years on Tuesday as voters appear set to move away from the right-wing policies of the ruling Progressive Conservative and turn sharply left.
At the end of a month-long campaign, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has never held more than 16 seats in the 87-seat provincial legislature, holds a commanding lead in the polls heading into the election.
When voting ends at 8 p.m. local time, the party and its charismatic leader, Rachel Notley, could unseat the Progressive Conservatives party, which has held power in the province of 4.1 million since 1971 and was initially expected to win handily a 13th-straight election.
"The surge by the (New Democrats) is almost unbelievable," said Lori Williams, a politics professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. "But I think people are still making up their minds so it's still unpredictable."
The NDP has promised to hike corporate tax rates by two percentage points to 12 percent if elected, but its promise to review the amount of royalty payments due the province from oil and gas production has some investors nervous.
Alberta's oil sands are the largest source of U.S. oil imports.
The election was expected to be an easy victory when rookie Premier Jim Prentice dissolved the provincial legislature on April 7, though the party still had a year remaining in its four-year mandate. But dissatisfaction over Prentice's tax-raising budget, the expense of the early election call when the province faces a C$5 billion ($4.1 billion) budget deficit and a series of gaffes by the conservatives squandered the party's lead.
Turnout for the election may be high. Traffic at advance polls has been unusually heavy, with Elections Alberta reporting more than 235,000 voting early, 31 percent higher than in 2012.
In 2012, 54.4 percent of voters went to the polls, the highest since 1993.
Pre-election polls in the province have been unreliable in the past. In 2012, polls showed the conservatives trailing the Wildrose, a party even further to the right, in the days leading up to the campaign. However, the PC party was returned to power with another majority while Wildrose won just 17 seats.
Reporting by Scott Haggett; Editing by Leslie Adler