MONTREAL—Voters in three federal ridings are casting ballots in byelections Monday. And while political analysts routinely caution against reading too much into the results of such contests, the races provide an early glimpse of the political landscape months before Canadians decide their next government.
Indeed, votes will be counted in three key battleground regions. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will fight for his first federal seat, and the upstart People’s Party of Canada will test the waters of right-wing populism in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, the Greater Toronto Area and the diverse heart of Montreal.
Here are some of the possible implications of these byelections:
For 14 years, this riding north of Toronto was represented by Peter Van Loan, a Harper-era cabinet minister who resigned from the House of Commons last year. With such a record of Conservative voting, Abacus Data chief executive David Coletto said he is looking to see how Robert Geurts, the local candidate for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, performs in the riding.
“The most important signal we get from tonight is how well does Max Bernier’s party do,” he said, adding that the PPC could make an impact in all three byelections. “That will give us an indication of the potential effectiveness of his party.”
Political scientist David Moscrop says that if the PPC can nab any significant amount of the vote in a riding—not to mention one in the perennial battleground region of the GTA—that could position the right-wing populist party as an alternative to the Conservatives. And even if the PPC doesn’t get enough votes to win seats, its candidates could still pull enough support away from the Conservatives to prevent them from clinching some ridings, he said.
“Byelections aren’t necessarily predictors of general elections, but if the PPC can nab eight to 10 per cent in a riding, it is sort of proof-of-concept,” said Moscrop.
“It would put the fear of God into the Conservatives.”
This multicultural riding in the centre of the island of Montreal was a Liberal stronghold for decades, until Thomas Mulcair came along and won it for the NDP in a 2007 byelection. That makes it hallowed turf for New Democrats, who see Mulcair’s success there as the symbolic toehold that culminated in the “Orange Wave” of 2011, when the party was propelled to its best-ever federal election result by overwhelming success in Quebec.
But now that Mulcair has left politics, local lawyer Rachel Bendayan is attempting to wrest Outremont back for the Liberals. She faces Julia Sanchez, an economist who worked for decades in international development, who is campaigning on an environment-focused platform for the NDP.
One factor in play is how voters react to the SNC-Lavalin affair, which has a strong local component given that the company is headquartered nearby in downtown Montreal and is a significant employer in the province. An indicator of its impact could be how many Liberal voters turnout to vote, Coletto said.
That said, it is too early to conclude whether the controversy surrounding the company and Justin Trudeau’s office will linger into the fall general election, said Moscrop.
“I think this is a reminder to the Liberals that, boy, you don’t want this in the news in October,” he said. “The sooner you deal with this completely, the better.”
Coletto added that he will look to the Bloc Québécois’s result in the riding as evidence of whether the separatist party is gaining traction under its new leader, Yves-François Blanchet.
This race has gobbled most of the oxygen surrounding these byelections—for good reason, as the result could decide Jagmeet Singh’s political fate.
The NDP leader is vying for his first federal seat in the British Columbia riding, where he has campaigned against a Liberal government he accuses of cosying up to corporate friends, falling short on affordable housing and failing to take climate change seriously enough. The riding was previously held by the NDP’s Kennedy Stewart, who won by about 500 votes in 2015 but resigned the seat last year to run for mayor of Vancouver.
Coletto said a victory here would be the first bit of good news the NDP has had in a long time. Under Singh—whose tenure began when he cruised to victory in the party’s October 2017 leadership race—the NDP has stalled in the polls, seen a parade of sitting MPs quit or announce they won’t run again in the general election, and experienced a sharp drop in fundraising, from more than $18 million in 2015 to roughly $5 million last year.
Singh’s entry to the House of Commons would give the party a chance to change the narrative, Coletto said.
“It gives them a huge opportunity to pivot and to start rebuilding his own reputation,” he said. “Low expectations can be a really powerful tool, because it’s easier to meet them.”
Singh’s chances could also get a boost from the lingering cloud of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which the NDP has snagged as fodder for their portrayal of the Liberals as a band of faux-progressive allies of big business. Combined with a Liberal stumble—candidate Karen Wang was replaced by former MLA Richard Lee partway through the race—and the possibility that People’s Party candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson snags votes from the Conservatives’ Jay Shin, the riding looks primed for a Singh win, said Moscrop.
“Burnaby South is sort of cooked for him to win,” he said.
Singh’s defeat in Burnaby South could precipitate a political crisis in the federal NDP. He has spent virtually all of 2019 campaigning in Burnaby South, and many in the party are thirsting for momentum ahead of the general election campaign.
While Singh insists he will lead the NDP into that race — win or lose on Monday — most observers predict there will be trouble if he fails to win a seat in this byelection.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga