Stephen Harper’s gamble on elections paid off last night, although he didn’t quite hit the jackpot he wanted.  Canadian voters gave the Conservatives a much stronger minority government but not quite a majority as they won 143 seats in Parliament.  The Liberal Party stumbled to only 77 seats, and may be looking for new leadership:

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives returned to power with a stronger, broadly based minority, facing a weakened opposition leader and ready to pursue an agenda that is likely to be aimed first and foremost at addressing the fallout in Canada from the economic storm sweeping the globe.

The results of Tuesday’s election deprived Mr. Harper of the majority he so desperately wanted when he killed his own minority government on Sept. 7 and showed Canadian voters wanted to keep the Conservatives on a leash during what the Tory leader acknowledged would be uncertain economic times ahead.

The Conservatives hope their tally and their wins in all regions of the country will give them enough power in the Commons to press ahead with their economic agenda, which, among other things, includes $50-billion in corporate tax cuts and possibly big buck solutions to easing the credit crunch. The party also promised in the campaign to enact a tougher crime package aimed at young offenders in particular.

Dion’s Grits lost almost 20 seats in Parliament, a major setback and a verdict on Dion’s leadership of what had been the dominant party in Canada for many years.  They have been reeling ever since the Adscam scandal in 2005 and have not found their footing since.  Canadians trust Harper’s Tories and the Prime Minister’s leadership, especially in precarious times.

This also represents an endorsement of Harper’s policies in Afghanistan, which is why this election has some additional import for the US.  Canada has been one of the most stalwart members of the NATO coalition, and one of the few willing to take a combat role in southern Afghanistan.  The lack of effort from other NATO members had created a backlash against the Harper government as casualties mounted, but France and other European nations agreed to bolster their contribution of combat troops, and Canada remained in the coalition.  This election shows that Harper still has the support of his nation for that mission.

They didn’t trust the Conservatives quite enough to give them a majority government, though, and that means the Liberals and Dion still have some relevance.  They’ll likely lead the opposition while Bloc Quebeçois completes the Conservative government.  If Harper can successfully navigate the global financial crisis, he may find himself with that elusive majority in the next election.  He plans to use a tax-cutting agenda to rescue Canada from the crisis — which is refreshing coming from our neighbors to the north, and would be the right agenda for the US as well.

My friend Michael Stickings live-blogged the election from the Liberal perspective, while my other friend Stephen Taylor live-twittered it from the Conservative perspective.