By Anna Mehler Paperny and Ismail Shakil
OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) -Ontario Premier Doug Ford claimed a sweeping election victory in Canada's most populous province on Thursday, as media projected a second term for his right-leaning Progressive Conservative party with an enhanced majority.
The Progressive Conservatives were on track to win at least 83 of the provincial legislature's 124 seats, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp projected. The party held 67 in the last legislature.
"What a night. And what a result. Together we have done the impossible. We have made history," Ford told exuberant supporters in his home constituency as they chanted "Four more years!"
"Tonight's victory, it isn't about me. It isn't about the party. ... This victory belongs to each and every one of you."
Ford's win came after he weathered criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the province's strained health care system. He campaigned on the back of a promise to increase spending despite a massive existing debt load.
The leaders of the Progressive Conservatives' main opponents, the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals, both announced they would step down Thursday night.
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca was projected to lose in his own constituency.
The result came quickly despite some election-day hiccups. Elections Ontario extended voting for up to two hours in some polls in 19 different electoral districts after delays to the start of voting.
Ford's Progressive Conservatives swept to power in 2018 after 15 years of Liberal rule.
Ontario, home to just under 40% of Canada's 38.2 million people, is Canada's manufacturing heartland. It is also one of the world's largest sub-sovereign borrowers, with publicly held debt currently standing at C$418.7 billion ($330.8 billion).
With inflation in Canada at a three-decade high, housing and cost-of-living issues drove the election campaign.
In a pre-election budget tabled in April, Ford promised billions of dollars of spending on infrastructure projects and outlined a tax credit for low-income earners, resulting in a higher budget deficit in the current fiscal year than the last.
The budget also put forth a slower path back to balance than some analysts had expected.
With a debt-to-GDP ratio of 40.7%, Ontario's debt load is higher than the next three most populous provinces and it pays more to borrow in the bond market.
Ford's popularity plunged in 2020 amid accusations Ontario had bungled the COVID-19 pandemic.
But his fortunes revived this year, in part through such populist moves as eliminating license plate renewal fees and expanding a foreign buyer tax on homes.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath stepped down after leading the party through four elections.
"We didn't get there this time. But just know we will continue to be the powerful champions people need us to be," she said.
($1 = 1.2658 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Richard Pullin)