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TORONTO (Reuters) - Polls point to a minority government in Canada's economic powerhouse of Ontario after provincial elections next week, amid disillusionment with the ruling Liberals and disappointment with their main rivals.
A landmark poll of 40,000 voters released over the weekend showed a tie between the Liberal and Progressive Conservative front-runners, with 35 percent voter support apiece.
But those figures, from an automated telephone poll, mean neither would get enough seats for a majority. Voting intentions were split -- urban voters favored the Liberals and rural voters backed the Conservatives.
"It could not have been any closer than that poll; they're not just statistically tied but pretty much exactly tied," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of pollster Forum Research.
The Liberals have ruled Ontario since 2003, steering the export-dependent province through a global recession that clobbered its manufacturing sector, while spending heavily on healthcare and education, and raising taxes.
The Conservatives promise to cut spending with the exception of health and education. They would scrap the Liberals' C$7 billion ($6.8 billion) green energy deal with South Korea's Samsung and stop paying big premiums for clean energy, which has driven up electricity bills.
Both parties intend to eliminate the province's C$16 billion deficit by 2017-18, without raising taxes.
Analysts say there are many possible outcomes to the vote. Some don't rule out an upset majority for the Conservatives, whose supporters are presumed "stickier" than rival parties' voters.
Others see the Liberals staying in power, perhaps in a pact with the left-leaning New Democrats, the third-ranking party.
"This is the most intriguing aspect of the election," said Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University.
"Precisely at the moment where in our federal politics, there's been this intensified discussion about the merits of some kind of unity arrangement between the Liberals and the NDP, lo and behold the result of the election in Canada's largest province, in Ontario, could very much be the model, the case study, for what kind of collaboration between these two parties is possible."
The federal Conservatives transformed their minority government into a majority in the May general election, in part because the left-of-center vote split between Liberals and New Democrats.
Some members of the two parties have talked about an amalgamation, but opposition to the idea is stiff and likely there would be little movement until both the Liberals and NDP replace interim heads with permanent leaders.
Whoever wins the October 6 election in Ontario will have their work cut out to revive a province that appears dangerously close to another recession.
Economists say no party has really made it clear exactly how they would protect the economy from a likely U.S. slowdown, with growth forecasts already downgraded.
"Cutting expenditures has not been a focus in this campaign as far as I've seen. I suspect that this will become an issue after the election," said Stephen Ogilvie, an Ontario analyst at Standard & Poor's, highlighting how hard it is to restrain spending growth when healthcare is a province's biggest cost.
The Liberals have asked Don Drummond, former chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, to find areas of savings. Last month he told a reporter: "Whoever forms the government on October 7 is going to find themselves in a deep fiscal hole."
Former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge sounded even more grim in a warning. "Whoever wins will be seen to have lied to the public," he said.
Reporting by Claire Sibonney; editing by Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson