Canadian by-election bonanza

Three federal and one provincial (in Quebec) by-elections were held in Canada on Monday, November 29. Of the four total by-elections, three were close and one of those three was a major surprise. At the federal level, the constituencies of Vaughan (ON), Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette (MB) and Winnipeg North (MB) fell vacant following the retirement of their sitting members to run in the October municipal elections in Ontario and Manitoba. Ultimately, only Vaughan Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua was successful in that race, with Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette Tory MP Inky Mark and Winnipeg North NDPer Judy Wasylycia-Leis being unsuccessful. In Quebec, the provincial riding of Kamouraska-Témiscouata fell vacant after the resignation and death (the same day) of provincial cabinet minister Claude Béchard, a Liberal who had held the seat since a 1997 by-election.

The federal series ultimately didn’t include a Quebec riding (Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia fell vacant on October 22), but given that all three major parties were defending a seat, it was seen as a good test for all three parties and especially Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals. In Quebec, the traditionally safely Liberal riding of Kamouraska-Témiscouata was seen as a test for both unpopular (understatement) Liberal Premier Jean Charest and slightly less unpopular PQ leader Pauline Marois.

Federal by-elections

Vaughan covers the rapid-growth suburbs of Toronto in the electorally crucial 905 belt. The riding is the most Catholic, least Protestant and least non-religious riding in Ontario; is largely white (25% or so non-white) and quite wealthy. Nearly 54% of residents claimed Italian ancestry according to the 2006 census, a statistic supported by the high percentage of Catholics (77%), married couples (87%) and second-generation immigrants (37% – the highest in Canada). Vaughan has seen rapid growth, a lot of it from visible minorities, with a population of 154,206 in 2006 – a full 37.6% increase on 2001. It will likely be divided into two ridings following the 2011-2012 redistricting.

Vaughan’s Italian-Catholic tradition explains its reputation as a Liberal stronghold. The Liberals, Maurizio Bevilacqua in particular, have held this riding since the 1988 election, and always with double-digit majorities and oftentimes with 50-70% of the vote. However, since 2000, as has happened in similar ‘ethnic suburban Liberal stronghold’-type ridings, the Liberals have consistenly shed votes. From a 62.6% majority in 2000 (on redistributed borders), the Liberals fell to a 14.8% majority in 2008 (in 2006, they still had a 33.7% majority).

The Conservatives nominated a star candidate in former police chief Julian Fantino, who ran a mud-slinging campaign focused around the theme of law-and-order. The Liberals, on the other hand, continuing with their knack of nominating horrible candidates, found only generic businessman Tony Genco after a long search. Certainly not the best choice against a star candidate, who turned into the frontrunner. Fantino, however, was dogged by the fact that he didn’t campaign much and seemed to lead an invisible campaign which ignored all-candidate meetings.

Julian Fantino (Conservative) 49.10% (+14.46%)
Tony Genco (Liberal) 46.65% (-2.53%)
Kevin Bordian (NDP) 1.68% (-7.94%)
Claudia Rodriguez-Larrain (Green) 1.22% (-5.64%)
Paolo Fabrizio (Libertarian) 0.64%
Dorian Baxter (PC) 0.28%
Leslie Bory (Ind) 0.28%
Brian Jedan (United) 0.14%

The media seems to have considered Fantino the overwhelming favourite, so some counted his narrow win as somewhat of a setback for the Tories. Pragmatically, it’s still an important win for the Tories and one which comes in the electorally crucial 905 belt which is key to a Tory majority government. However, sensational headlines about the fall of a Liberal stronghold are a bit off the mark. As noted above, the vote has been shifting away from the Liberals in ridings such at these at a rapid pace since 2000 and there were some massive swings in ridings like these in 2008 (Dion played really, really poorly in the 905 suburbs). Of course, there is also the high possibility that a popular long-term incumbent like Bevilacqua artificially inflated Liberal numbers and may have hid the fact that Vaughan was really a marginal riding in the end. The NDP and the Greens were crushed very badly, winning just over 1% of the vote each. A case of strategic voting if you’ve ever seen it, especially amplified because the race was covered as an exclusively Liberal-Tory affair.

The percentages may throw us off a bit, but the NDP and the Greens’ squeeze probably helped the Liberals more than the Tories. Turnout was only 32%, 20 points less than in 2008, but the Tories held on to all but 130 of their 2008 votes. That might indicate that Fantino was really good at maximizing Conservative turnout, but in the end might not have gotten a lot of votes from 2008 Liberal or NDP voters. The bottom line here is a Conservative victory smaller in size than originally anticipated, a decent Liberal defense effort and a total collapse of other votes.

Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, a rural riding in western Manitoba, was the least interesting of the contests. It is a typical western rural riding, with 27% employed in agriculture, 24% of aboriginal ancestry with most residents claiming distant European, in this region often Ukrainian, ancestry. The Liberals won this riding in 1993, but only with 32% of the vote against a split right and a strong NDP. The CCF and NDP also held this riding in the distant past, most recently in 1980. Retiring MP Inky Mark was elected for the Reform Party in 1997, reelected for the Alliance in 2000 and for the Tories since then. Since this riding took its current form in 2000, the Tories have never won by less than 27% and Mark won by a 45% margin in 2008 over the NDP.

Robert Sopuck (Conservative) 56.73% (-4.81%)
Denise Harder (NDP) 26.26% (+9.71%)
Christopher Scott Sarna (Liberal) 10.28% (-3.59%)
Kate Storey (Green) 5.61% (-0.9%)
Jerome Dondo (CHP) 1.11% (-0.1%)

No surprises here. Despite low turnout – only 26.9% (lowest of the 3, likely caused by bad weather) – the Conservatives held on by a big margin. The NDP also won its only good showing of the night, winning nearly 10% more than in 2008. While the Liberals saved their deposit, they collapsed to a new low, which certainly isn’t a good sign. These numbers seem to show that the Liberals are becoming increasingly irrelevant in rural areas – especially those out west, where the non-Tory vote is shifting to the NDP at a rapid pace since 2004 or so. The Greens did best here, probably helped a bit by Inky Mark’s endorsement.

Winnipeg North is a inner-city urban riding in northern Winnipeg, was supposed to be safe NDP. Covering most of Winnipeg’s north-end, which is a cosmopolitan impoverished working-class area, the seat has a long CCF-NDP history. The riding has the highest percentage in western Canada of manufacturing jobs (19%) and is only 48% white with 20% aboriginal and 32% of visible minorities. Notably, Winnipeg North has the country’s largest Filipino population – 21%.

CCF founder and labour activist J.S. Woodsworth represented part of the present-day seat between 1925 and 1942, and the NDP has been dominant since then with a few exceptions. A Liberal, Ray Pagtakhan, represented a part of the current seat in the 90s. The current seat of Winnipeg North has been held by Judy Wasylycia-Leis since its 2000 creation (she represented the old Winnipeg North Centre, which makes up 73% of this riding, between 1997 and 2000). The Liberals were within 10% on redistributed results in 2000, and within 12% in 2004. But in 2008, they won only 9.2% while the Tories managed a ‘record’ 22.4%. Winnipeg North was the NDP’s second-best seat overall in 2008 with 63% of the vote. Amusingly, the Communists have always done ‘well’ here, sometimes breaking 1%. They had won 27% in 1945, but their vote collapsed shortly thereafter.

The Liberals had a star candidate, provincial Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux, who has managed to win rather easily in the traditionally NDP seat of Inkster for a few years. The NDP nominated Kevin Chief, an aboriginal with roots in the aboriginal community. The Conservatives nominated Julie Javier, a Filipina, in an attempt to hinder the Liberals and NDP with the Filipino vote. The Conservatives thought they stood a chance, running a law-and-order campaign, and even sent Harper to make a visit.

Kevin Lamoureux (Liberal) 46.32% (+37.11%)
Kevin Chief (NDP) 41.17% (-21.42%)
Julie Javier (Conservative) 10.45% (-11.90%)
John T. Harvie (Green) 0.72% (-4.06%)
Jeff Coleman (Pirate) 0.60%
Frank Komarniski (Communist) 0.45% (-0.22%)
Eric Truijen (CHP) 0.29%

This is a seat which the NDP had absolutely no business losing. The Liberals were going to do well no matter what because of their star candidate, but the NDP had no excuse for losing their second safest seat and the safest in the Prairies. The Liberal win was a major surprise, which almost nobody had predicted. Part of it, a lot in fact, comes from a top-notch candidate who has managed to win elections here (well, part of the riding) as a non-Dipper and has done so pretty convincingly. Another thing is that low turnout by-elections (31% in this case) here are detrimental to the NDP, whose electorate is poorer and thus more likely to turn out (but – turnout was only 43% in 2008 and the NDP still won by 40%) especially when the weather is bad (like it was on Monday, apparently). It remains to be seen if this result a by-election fluke as the NDP would like to believe, or if it is confirmed in a general election. Still, Lamoureux will be very vulnerable in a higher-turnout general election.

The overall narrative of these by-elections are favourable to the Conservatives (thought not as much as some think), mixed-bag for the Liberals and poor for the NDP. Winning Vaughan is definitely a good thing for the Tories, which proves that they are still very competitive in the 905 and that they still stand a decent chance at picking up seats there on their route to a majority. That being said, it remains to be seen if Fantino won only by a strong Tory turnout organization effort or if he genuinely broke through with ancestrally Liberal voters. If it’s the former, it’s bad for the Tories which means they still need to work on appealing beyond their base. If it’s the latter, it’s good news for the Tories overall. For the Liberals, losing Vaughan is definitely bad but they remain competitive there despite nominating an awful candidate against a star candidate. Vaughan certainly isn’t Ignatieff’s Outremont. Winning Winnipeg North cancels out the loss in Vaughan, but it remains a shaky win which is more likely than not to be a fluke, but it shows that local Liberal candidates are still very much competitive even in non-traditionally Liberal areas and in urban areas out west (where they’ve suffered a lot since 2006). For the NDP, it’s bad (with the exception of Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette) and losing Winnipeg North is beyond awful. For the Greens, it’s bad, but by-elections are awful things for them as a rule.

Provincial by-election

A by-election was also held in Kamouraska-Témiscouata on Monday. This seat had been held since a 1997 by-election by Liberal Claude Béchard who was a popular cabinet minister until his death/resignation on September 7. Kamouraska-Témiscouata is 99% French, and is a typical rural Quebec constituency. But it gave only 53% of the votes to the YES in the 1995 referendum, and has been held by the Liberals since 1985. The Bas-Saint-Laurent region is not hardcore nationalistic, especially when compared to the North Shore (and places like Lanaudière), but it isn’t a federalist stronghold either (unlike Beauce, for example). While this is not a swing riding per se, the PQ certainly needs to do well here (not necessarily win, it only won in 1976 and 1981) and in the general area in order to win provincially. The region is definitely conservative, and the ADQ did well here in the past.  Béchard did really well in 2008, winning 53.7%, perhaps a number artificially inflated a bit by sympathy over his battle with cancer. The ADQ won 36.7% here in 2007 (against 39.7% for Béchard) and managed second in 2008 with 21.6% (against 21.1% for the PQ).

The Liberals nominated Béchard’s predecessor in this seat, France Dionne, who held the seat between 1985 and 1997.

André Simard (PQ) 36.85% (+15.70%)
France Dionne (Liberal) 35.85% (-17.85%)
Gérald Beaulieu (ADQ) 23.03% (+1.47%)
Serge Proulx (QS) 2.67% (-0.27%)
Frédéric Brophy Nolan (Green) 1.60%

The PQ’s victory is certainly very bad news for the Liberals. It isn’t surprising, given that Charest has a 16% approval rating and that 77% of people want him gone, but some had thought this seat was too safe for the Liberals for them to lose it. The Liberal’s hope was that the anti-Liberal vote would split evenly between the PQ and ADQ, but in the end while the ADQ gained a bit of ground, the anti-Liberal vote coalesced around the PQ. The Liberals suffered a massive swing against them, a swing which, if repeated provincially, would kill off most Liberal MNAs except those on the West Island. The ADQ, on its side, managed to hold its head up high a bit, a respite in their collapse since 2008. They could benefit a bit of the Liberal’s collapse in ridings such as this one, but the reality is that they’re still dying (and would really die if a new centre-right party is created as the buzz says) and that the anti-Liberal vote is still coalesced around the PQ. PQ leader Pauline Marois can breathe a sigh of relief, given that a lot of people had said that if she managed to lose this by-election for the party, her leadership might be at risk. She isn’t very popular, and few people are truly enthusiastic about the prospect of having her replacing Charest by 2013, but she is more popular than Charest who is well on his way to be less popular than the plague by the New Year.

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Posted on December 1, 2010, in By-elections, Canada, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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