ALBERTA

Calgary-Foothills Byelection: 5 Things To Watch In Today's Vote

09/03/2015 12:17 EDT | Updated 09/03/2016 05:59 EDT
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Voters in Calgary-Foothills can be excused for being a little weary of voting, as today is the third time in a year that they've gone to the polls.

This time they're voting to replace former premier Jim Prentice. He stepped down — to the surprise and anger of many — during his concession speech on election night when the NDP obliterated the Progressive Conservative's 44-year-old dynasty.

Voters in Calgary-Foothills had only picked Prentice to be their MLA in a byelection in October 2014.

Today marks the first electoral test for the New Democrats since winning the general election in the spring. Here are five things to watch:

1. Low voter turnout concerns

Byelections are notorious for low voter turnout — and most longtime political watchers don't expect Calgary-Foothills to be any different today.

Less than a year ago, in last October's byelection, only about a third of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. This, despite a massive media blitz by the political parties — and a newly-minted premier, fresh off of a victorious leadership race, running in the byelection.

"There was a lot of anticipation," remembers Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt. "It was high profile. There were TV ads, which is unprecedented — and voter turn out was 36.5 per cent," he stresses.

Bratt says it's a Thursday before a long weekend, in the summer, in the midst of a federal campaign — which marks the fourth time locals will have to cast a ballot in a year. He doesn't put much stock in the high number of votes cast in advance polls last week, or 12 per cent of the total electorate.

He says more and more voters are voting in advance — and can't be used to predict voter turn out on election day.

2. Buyer's remorse?

Until their big win in May, the NDP had not won a seat in Calgary since 1989. But the spring election's orange crush swept over big parts of traditionally conservative Calgary, with the party winning 14 of the city's 25 seats.

Recent polls suggest the province is split over how Rachel Notley is doing as premier, with 45 per cent saying they approve — down from 62 per cent approval in May. Another 42 per cent say they disapprove.

Today's byelection marks the first time for voters to pass judgement on the new government. But byelections, say most analysts, are not a true barometer of the government's popularity. Voters often like to send a message of protest to the governing party.

Most Alberta political watchers think a win today for the NDP gives the party justified bragging rights.

"There is a huge upside if the NDP win this seat," said Bratt.

The Mount Royal University professor says the governing New Democrats will spin a win as "an endorsement" of the party's agenda, including its corporate tax hike and controversial plan to review how the provinces taxes royalties such as oil and gas.

The NDP has poured a lot of energy into their campaign.  Notely — and a number of cabinet ministers — have spent time campaigning in the riding that's been PC since 1971. But Bratt says a loss for Notley and her party is not that big a deal for the NDP.

"They're still the government," he said. "They still have a large majority. This is a traditional conservative seat that last October the NDP had 3 per cent of the vote in."

3. How do the once mighty Tories do?

The PCs used to be a constant in Calgary politics. Former premiers Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein called Calgary home. The PCs won 20 of the city's 25 seats in 2012. 

But the political dynasty was crushed in May's election, reduced to just 10 seats — and all but three members of Prentice's cabinet were defeated .

Most political watchers think the linger anger over Prentice's decision to resign on election night could hurt the party. Even the PC's candidate, Blair Houston, admitted on CBC Radio that he's angry and frustrated with the former premier's decision to quit.

Bratt says a good showing — in the 20 per cent range — for the PCs could breath life into the moribund party. But if they get around 10 per cent, says Bratt, it will be tough for the PCs to emerge as a competitive force again.

4. Rural-based Wildrose in Alberta's biggest city

The Wildrose Party, arguably, has the most at stake in this byelection. The mostly rural party needs to expand into the province's seat-rich cities if it ever wants to form government.

Former Wildrose leader Paul Hinman upset the PCs tradition of winning in Calgary with a 2009 byelection victory in Calgary-Glenmore. Three years later, Hinman lost his seat in the general election, but the Wildrose captured two other seats in the city.

A byelection win today in Calgary-Foothills would inject some energy into the party and cement the party as the centre-right alternative to the NDP.

But if they lose, questions will be raised about the party's ability to appeal to urban voters. Bratt says some will wonder "are they simply a rural rump?"

5. Will vote splitting spark more calls for the right to unite?

Political watchers will pay close attention to the vote percentages each party gets today.

If the NDP wins by dividing the right, then there will likely be renewed calls for the Wildrose and PCs to unite.

"That is going to put greater impetus on some sort of merger-cooperation between the two [opposition] parties," said Bratt.

Stay up to date with the latest byelection results on our website after the polls close at 8 p.m. MT on Thursday. 

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