OTTAWA: Canada's most populous province, Ontario, went to the polls on Thursday, with the right-leaning Progressive Conservatives set to retain power on the back of a promise to increase spending despite a massive existing debt load.

The party led by Doug Ford has been holding a clear lead over the opposition New Democrats and the Liberals, who both compete for the center-left vote. An Ekos Research poll published Sunday gave the Progressive Conservatives a seven-point lead over their closest challenger, the Liberal Party.

Ford, who swept to power in 2018 after 15 years of Liberal rule, needs to win 63 seats in the 124-seat provincial legislature to retain his majority. At dissolution the party held 67.

Some polls opened late, by as much as two hours, due to "incidents such as fire, sewer backups and power outages," an Elections Ontario spokesperson said, without saying how many or where.

A portal that gives parties information on who has already voted was hit by "connectivity issues," the spokesperson added. Parties use the information for their last-minute get-out-the-vote strategies, a New Democratic Party spokesperson told Reuters. The portal was working by Thursday afternoon.

Polls close at 9:00 PM ET (0100 GMT, Friday).

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.

"Day 29, I am so excited!" Ford, 57, said in a video tweeted on Wednesday, referring to the 29th day of his campaign.

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 epidemic.

But his fortunes revived this year, in part through some populist moves like eliminating license plate renewal fees and expanding a foreign buyer tax on homes.

The New Democrats' Andrea Horwath vowed to create an annual speculation and vacancy tax on residential property.

The Liberals, led by Steven Del Duca, promised to reduce public transit fares while imposing a surtax on companies with annual profits exceeding C$1 billion.

A poll tracker maintained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp showed that the Liberals and the New Democrats each had just a 1%-chance of winning.

($1 = 1.2658 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Richard Pullin)