09/27/2013 10:05 EDT

Toronto, Montreal Byelections: Trudeau, Mulcair Put To The Test


The tables are mostly set for byelections that will soon be called in the ridings of Toronto Centre and Bourassa, along with two others in Manitoba. They have been called a test for both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair — but just how much of a challenge are these two urban ridings?

The races in Provencher and Brandon-Souris in Manitoba are not expected to be very competitive. Though there are some rumblings about how the Conservative candidate was selected in Brandon-Souris, neither riding is likely to go any other way than Tory. That will give Conservatives two pieces of good news on a night that will not go very well for them in either Bourassa, a Montreal riding, or Toronto Centre.

Those two seats are being primarily contested by the Liberals and New Democrats. Both were occupied by well-known Liberal MPs: Bob Rae in Toronto Centre and Denis Coderre in Bourassa. Both have a long history of voting Liberal, and both were retained by relatively comfortable (but closer than usual) margins in a very poor election for Liberals in 2011.

With Trudeau having boosted the Liberals to first place nationwide, as well as in Ontario and Quebec (in most polls), it would seem that these two ridings should be easily won by the party.

But byelections can be very different beasts. And the races in Toronto Centre and Bourassa are grouping together an interesting slate of candidates. If the byelections are decided solely on the national profile of the parties, the Liberals will certainly win them. If the candidates can make the race about who voters want as their next MP, it could be close.

In Toronto Centre, two former journalists are facing off in Chrystia Freeland for the Liberals and Linda McQuaig for the New Democrats. Both have written about income inequality, and it is setting up to be an important theme of the campaign. Freeland has already been named to co-chair the Liberal Party's new economic council of advisors, indicating that Trudeau expects her to play an important role in the future.

But Freeland left a job in New York to run for the nomination, and has the look of a parachute candidate. Voters in Toronto Centre may chafe against that, but if the riding goes where the wider winds are heading in the province, the Liberals should be able to hold it.

Bourassa is an interesting race because it stands as the first real test of the NDP's support in Quebec after their breakthrough in 2011. One of the few ridings to resist the NDP in Quebec, voters in Bourassa will likely choose between Emmanuel Dubourg of the Liberals or Stéphane Moraille of the NDP, who was chosen as the party's candidate earlier this week. Dubourg is a former Liberal MLA for a nearby provincial riding, while Moraille is a lawyer and artist.

Polls suggest that the Liberals are doing very well in the province — particularly on the island of Montreal. It may be too much to expect the NDP to wrestle this riding away from the Liberals. Complicating things is the presence of Georges Laraque as the Green Party candidate. As a former Montreal Canadiens player in a hockey-mad city, Laraque has a high profile. But any advantage he may have had from his Haitian descent in a riding with a large Haitian community has been nullified — both Dubourg and Moraille share that heritage.

The NDP would do well to lower expectations for these two byelections. These are Liberal strongholds that stayed with the party when it was at rock bottom, and should continue to stick with Grits when they are soaring in the polls. But the NDP is still likely to do quite well, as they have strong candidates on the ballot and traditional supporters of the Tories and Bloc Québécois are unlikely to show up in large numbers.

In the end, all three parties may emerge from the series of four byelections with something to smile about.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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