01/28/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 03/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Conservatives hold two byelections in provincial Manitoba ridings

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's Opposition Progressive Conservatives easily held onto two legislature seats in byelections Tuesday night as the governing New Democrats saw their support drop sharply.

With a few polls remaining late in the evening, longtime Tory party member Shannon Martin in Morris and financial planner Doyle Piwniuk in Arthur-Virden had secured well over 60 per cent of the vote. The NDP, which had finished a strong second in both seats in the 2011 provincial election, was struggling to get more than 10 per cent of the vote in both areas and had fallen to third place in Arthur-Virden, behind a surging Liberal party.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister said the result was a strong rebuke of the government's decision last year to raise the provincial sales tax despite a 2011 election promise not to do so.

"They ran on a promise which they broke immediately thereafter. So they don't really have the right to govern, and that's the message I think a lot of people wanted to send today," Pallister told reporters.

"They're not selling anybody on the need to jack up the (sales tax), so do the right thing — back it off."

Premier Greg Selinger was not available Tuesday night. His press secretary said he would likely comment Wednesday because results were still coming in late.

The byelections are the first since Selinger raised the sales tax to eight per cent from seven last July. Since then, opinion polls have suggested that the NDP has sunk to its lowest level of support since taking power in 1999.

Royce Koop, who teaches political science at the University of Manitoba, said the NDP "have had a terrible year" with the sales tax hike and other controversies. He cited the recent revelation that former immigration minister Christine Melnick misled the legislature about an immigration rally that was orchestrated by bureaucrats at her request. The provincial ombudsman said the event raised questions about the impartiality of the civil service

Voter turnout was very low, around 30 per cent in both areas, in part because of bitterly cold weather with temperatures in the —20s and wind chills even lower. People in some parts of Morris were just getting their heat back after a natural gas pipeline explosion on Saturday.

The NDP support seemed to go primarily to the Liberals. The NDP scored 30 per cent in Arthur-Virden in the last election and 19 per cent in Morris.

The Liberals, who won just four per cent in Arthur-Virden and six per cent in Morris in 2011, garnered more than 10 per cent in both areas Tuesday night. The Liberals have grown under new leader Rana Bokhari, who took over the party reins in October.

"We are a party that people recognize has momentum, that is a new party," Bokhari said.

But Koop warned the Liberal support may fade before the next election, slated for 2016, because voters will then be deciding on a government instead of two legislature seats.

"It is not uncommon for voters to want to send a message to the government in a byelection," he said.