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Here’s what observers are watching for in Monday’s four federal byelections

OTTAWA — Four new MPs are set to be elected to the House of Commons Monday in a handful of byelections that political watchers say could expose rifts within the Conservative party and bring a new Liberal cabinet hopeful into the fold.

The Liberals are expected to hold onto seats in Winnipeg and Montreal, said Philippe J. Fournier, the polling analyst behind the 338Canada polling aggregator website.

The Tories, meanwhile, are poised to hang on in rural Ontario and Manitoba seats, he said — but their margins of victory in both ridings could be insightful for those looking to read the political tea leaves.

The closest thing to a nail-biter will likely occur in Oxford, a mostly rural riding in southern Ontario that has been a Conservative stronghold for nearly 20 years.

Party infighting has led to “the nastiest campaign that we’ve ever seen in our riding,” said Dave MacKenzie, who announced he was stepping down from the seat in December.

“It’s divided our party and our community,” he said in an interview.

MacKenzie won in the 2021 federal election with nearly 47 per cent of the vote, a 27-point margin over the Liberal candidate.

But his surprise endorsement of this contest’s Liberal candidate, whom he calls “an honest guy,” has turned heads — and Fournier said it could eat into the Conservatives’ support.

“It’s probably going to be Conservative win, but the fact that it’s close (in polls) has to scare some Conservatives,” he said.

“They cannot start losing Ontario seats if they want to win the next general election.”

MacKenzie said he believes the Conservative party parachuted its candidate Arpan Khanna into the riding without due process.

He alleged that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and House Leader Andrew Scheer meddled in their local association by influencing the nomination process and taking away grassroots power.

Khanna helped Poilievre’s campaign in Ontario during the leadership campaign and ran as a candidate for Scheer in a Brampton riding in 2019.

MacKenzie said Khanna’s nomination has led to people cancelling their Conservative memberships and clawing back donations.

He said this should be a wake-up call for Poilievre.

“He’s not a bad guy, but he’s got some cancer around him and he should shake that stuff out,” MacKenzie said.

The party did not respond to a request for comment.

But it’s clear that the Conservatives would rather the country focus on Portage-Lisgar, where they are looking to stamp out People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier’s bid to rejoin the House of Commons.

Bernier has said he wants to give his party a more prominent voice and prove that Conservatives are not strong enough on “cultural battles” that supporters care about. He has campaigned against transgender-inclusive policies and vowed to reopen the abortion debate.

In the last federal election, Bernier’s candidate got nearly 22 per cent of the vote in Portage-Lisgar. Prominent Conservative Candice Bergen still won with more than half the vote. She announced last fall she was stepping down.

While it’s unlikely that Bernier will be elected, Fournier said, the Conservatives will be eying whether or not his party can grow that margin.

Fournier said the Tories’ recent promises to “never go” to the World Economic Forum — an international organization that has become a the source of rampant conspiracy theories online — show they are trying to woo back voters who chose the People’s Party of Canada last time.

Poilievre himself held a rally in Winkler several weeks ago and revived anti-World Economic Forum slogans, taking aim at Bernier’s participation in that event when he was foreign affairs minister under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Lori Turnbull, an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, said she sees this as a key opportunity for Poilievre to show he can rally support from the party’s right-most wing.

“That’s going to energize people in the Conservative party who are afraid that they are losing votes on the right,” she said.

That fear is what led to the ouster of previous leader Erin O’Toole after the last federal election, Turnbull argued.

“It wasn’t just because he lost the election. It was because there was the sense that he wasn’t doing anything to address the possible bleeding on the right side, and that wasn’t gonna be reversed.”

Winnipeg South Centre is widely expected to remain a Liberal seat after the death of longtime MP Jim Carr last December.

His son Ben Carr is likely to take his father’s seat, Fournier said.

And a prominent Liberal insider, Anna Gainey, is expected to keep Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount red after the retirement of former cabinet minister Marc Garneau.

Gainey is a former party president and served as the policy adviser to two national defence and veterans’ affairs ministers.

That experience could put her in a prominent position, suggested Turnbull.

“She’s had such a high profile in the party, has been party president and is a good friend of the Trudeaus. Will there be a cabinet position for her?” she said.

“I’d be surprised if she wasn’t given a leadership role.”

Polls in all four ridings are expected to close at 9:30 p.m. EDT.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2023.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press


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