04/18/2012 04:55 EDT | Updated 06/18/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. premier says Liberals face tough slog in upcoming byelections

VICTORIA - British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is downplaying expectations of Liberal victories in Thursday's two hotly contested byelections while looking ahead to next year's provincial election as the battleground for free enterprise.

Clark noted governments rarely win byelections, adding her win last year in the Vancouver-Point Grey riding was a three-decade rarity.

But she said the two Lower Mainland byelection campaigns will serve as warmups for next May's provincial election, when she expects voters will be asked to support free enterprise.

"Governments don't tend to win these byelections," she said. "As you know we haven't won one in 30 years, except for the one that I won," Clark said. "It's a tough slog, but we've been working really hard to try and make sure that we can speak to voters in both those ridings about why free enterprise matters."

Clark said that while she's open to discussions about changing the party's name from the B.C. Liberals to one that may encompass a wider political field, she's not mentioning the John Cummins-led B.C. Conservatives.

Some business leaders who support the Liberals have been calling on Clark to form some type of political merger with the Conservatives to keep the Opposition New Democrats from winning the next election.

The Conservatives are gaining support in public opinion polls, but so far have only one member in the legislature — former Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen, who recently defected to the Conservatives.

"There will be only two choices facing British Columbians in the next election," Clark said. "They can go forward or they can go backward."

Two traditionally safe Liberal seats are up for grabs in suburban Vancouver's Port Moody-Coquitlam riding and the Fraser Valley's Chilliwack-Hope riding.

NDP candidate Joe Trasolini, a former Port Moody mayor who once supported Clark, is considered the favourite, while Chilliwack-Hope is expected to be a tight, three-way race between the New Democrats, Liberals and upstart B.C. Conservatives.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said the byelections are likely signs of changes ahead for the province.

"I think the province needs a change in the provincial government and I'll be making the case for that," Dix said. "If you want to know how I'm going to run in the next election, you can take a look at Chilliwack-Hope and Port Moody-Coquitlam."

In Port Moody-Coquitlam, former Liberal cabinet minister Iain Black's seat is being contested by B.C. Conservative Christine Clarke, B.C. Liberal Dennis Marsden and New Democrat Trasolini.

In Chilliwack-Hope, candidates vying for four-term Liberal Barry Penner's seat include B.C. Conservative John Martin, New Democrat Gwen O'Mahony, Liberal Laurie Throness and a Libertarian, Lewis Clarke Dahlby.