10/27/2014 06:00 EDT | Updated 12/27/2014 05:59 EST

5 Things To Watch For Today In 4 Alberta Byelections

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Premier Jim Prentice and two unelected cabinet ministers are among the candidates seeking seats in the Alberta legislature today in four byelections.

Voters are choosing new members of the legislative assembly in Calgary-Elbow, Calgary-Foothills, Calgary-West and Edmonton-Whitemud. All four ridings elected a Progressive Conservative MLA in the 2012 election.

The stakes are high for Prentice. Today’s byelections are the first test of his leadership since he became premier and leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives last month, replacing Alison Redford. She resigned amid controversy over spending and personal use of government airplanes.

Within two weeks of becoming premier, Prentice tried reversing course on a number of issues, by putting the airplanes up for sale, announcing an end to patronage and government entitlements, and putting a halt to the closure of the Michener Centre. But will a new face at the top be enough for voters?

The outcome is equally significant for the opposition parties, which are hoping to make gains at the expense of the governing Tories, who hold 57 of 87 seats in the legislature.

Here are five things to watch for tonight:

1. Voter turnout

Byelection results can defy expectations and turn into a referendum on the governing party. Observers are wondering if voters will be motivated to send a message to the Tories. Some people may vote for another party as a protest vote; disgruntled traditional Tory voters might just stay home.

In Calgary-Elbow, frustrations over the slow pace of reconstruction and mitigation measures after the 2013 floods could also be a factor in how people vote.

2. Who will centre-left voters support this time?

Redford’s victory in the 2011 leadership race and the 2012 election was attributed to her ability to appeal to voters who may have otherwise voted for the Liberals and NDP.

Strategic voting was also a tactic used by some centre-left voters in 2012 who voted for the PCs to keep the Wildrose Party from forming the next government.

In 2014, the Wildrose has dulled its social conservative edges in hopes of appearing more mainstream, so they may not drive people to the PCs. So who will these voters support this time?

3. Will the Wildrose benefit from PC/Redford backlash?

The byelections are just as much a test of Danielle Smith’s leadership of the Wildrose Party. The party was expected to defeat the Tories in the 2012 election, but revelations about the homophobic and racist views of two candidates scared voters away. The Tories under Redford won their 12th consecutive majority government.

Since then, the party has started vetting candidates to avoid what Smith herself called "bozo eruptions." It wants to rid itself of more controversial policies and come out as friendly to LGBT issues. Will a kinder, gentler Wildrose appeal to traditional PC voters and add to the 17 seats the party holds in the Alberta legislature? Or has Prentice, running in Calgary Foothills, been able to reverse his party’s fortunes?

4. Will the NDP or Liberals make any gains? What about the Alberta Party?

The NDP is fresh off a leadership race that saw the widely respected MLA Rachel Notley elected as leader. All four NDP MLAs are from Edmonton, and Notley would love to pick up seats in Calgary. However, the NDP is pinning its best hopes on Edmonton-Whitemud, where oncologist Bob Turner is running against Health Minister Stephen Mandel.

In the hotly contested Calgary-Elbow riding, Alberta Party candidate Greg Clark has run a high-profile campaign orchestrated by former Redford chief of staff Stephen Carter. Political observers are watching to see if all the social media buzz will translate into votes for a party that had no members in the last legislative assembly.

As for the Liberals, they dropped from eight to five seats in the 2012 election. They have a high-profile candidate running in Edmonton-Whitemud: University of Alberta nursing professor Donna Wilson.

5. Will Prentice’s unelected cabinet ministers win their seats?

In appointing his cabinet, Prentice made the controversial choice to include two men who weren’t members of the PC caucus: former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel and former Calgary Board of Education chairman Gordon Dirks.

Dirks and Mandel are running in Calgary-Elbow and Edmonton-Whitemud respectively. Both are facing challenges from strong candidates

If Dirks and/or Mandel fail to win their seats, it could shake confidence in Prentice’s ability to reverse the course of the PC party.

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