The polls have started to close across the country, following an election campaign that began with a whimper but has held plenty of surprises.

Polls show the NDP surging to second place nationally on the heels of the Conservatives, and first in Quebec ahead of the Bloc Quebecois.

Earlier, the federal party leaders cast their ballots Monday, turning the election over to the voters after a campaign that began with a whimper but ended with a surprise surge by the NDP.

New Democrat Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff went to the polls Toronto on Monday morning, with each man seeming to face a markedly different fate.

Layton was the first of the leaders to vote, visiting a polling station in his wife's riding along with the couple's granddaughter.

"The country lies in the hands of Canadians today and I believe many will choose change and I think that's a very exciting thing for Canada," Layton said after voting.

He said he believes Canadians "will break out of the old patterns and the old habits" of voting for either the Conservatives or the Liberals.

CTV's Richard Madan, who travelled with the NDP for much of the campaign, said the New Democrats' success will be measured in the results from two provinces that it targeted during the campaign: Quebec and British Columbia.

In Quebec, the NDP focused on so-called "soft nationalists" with his pledge to reopen the Constitution. Across the country in B.C., the party appealed to voters angry about the Harmonized Sales Tax.

"Their strategy going into this was all about Quebec, it was all about British Columbia, and they tailor-made their messages in each province," Madan told CTV's Power Play Monday evening.

Meanwhile, Ignatieff cast a ballot in his Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding alongside his wife, after greeting subway commuters in the neighbourhood.

He and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zohar, then paid a visit to a nursing home.

"It's an important moment for every citizen, it's an important moment for me, so I was delighted to vote today," Ignatieff said.

"I am getting reports of good turnout today so that's terrific."

Despite Ignatieff's upbeat tone with reporters, the party appears headed for an historic low in seats as well as popular vote.

While Ignatieff was praised by the media for his performance at rallies, Ignatieff never really connected with voters and his campaign suffered from confused messaging, according to CTV's Roger Smith.

"We've all talked about the fact that he was a great performer on the campaign and they ran a pretty good campaign," Smith told Power Play. "But it really can't be a very good campaign when you're headed for a third-place finish and your party has never finished third before."

Later Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper cast his ballot at a school in his Calgary Southwest riding alongside his wife, Laureen, and their two children.

Afterwards, the Harpers greeted children in the schoolyard, where kids clamoured to shake the prime minister's hand.

"It's a great day," Harper said. "It's a great democracy. The sky is blue."

CTV's Chief Parliamentary Correspondent, Craig Oliver, said Monday that the NDP's surge, particularly in B.C., has the Tory camp worried they could lose seats that might cost them their coveted majority.

If the Conservatives win the most seats but don't get the number of seats they covet, "we could be into a long, very complex negotiation, the way the British were before they formed a conservative-liberal coalition," Oliver told Power Play.

Conservative Party talking points for election night that were obtained by CTV News suggest the Tories would downplay the significance of another minority, despite Harper's repeated calls to voters for a stronger mandate.

"The news media may try to set 155 seats as a benchmark for Conservative success," the memo says. "Any suggestion like this is based on a false premise. If we had our way, there would not be an election and Mr. Harper would continue to lead a minority government."

Duceppe also faces NDP threat

Another potential victim of the NDP's "orange crush" is Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who cast his ballot at a church in his home riding of Laurier-Saint-Marie where pundits predict he is in a fight to retain the seat he has held since 1990.

"It's democracy," Duceppe said. "You have to vote. Democracy is precious. I always have butterflies (on election day). That's normal. I'm confident. And I'm asking people to vote."

The Bloc leader has been taken by surprise by the NDP's popularity in Quebec, where the New Democrats have the lead, according to the most recent polls.

CTV's Genevieve Beauchemin said that unlike in previous campaigns, the Bloc failed to galvanize Quebec voters around a single issue and they decided to look at other options.

"The Bloc talked about being the only party that stopped a Tory majority, that was their big pitch," Beauchemin told Power Play. "And a lot of Quebecers just weren't buying into that, just looking at this issue and saying, ‘Well, maybe there's other parties we can look at.'"

Pundits predict Duceppe will be forced to resign as Bloc leader if the party takes the pummelling the polls suggest. But Beauchemin pointed out that there is no obvious successor to Duceppe, who would only say as the campaign wound down that he would fulfill his mandate as an MP if he is re-elected.

Back in B.C., Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and her daughter voted at a church in Sidney in her Saanich-Gulf Islands riding.

May said she was voting "to make history," in an effort to become the first Green Party candidate elected to the House of Commons.