CALGARY — Voters in northwest Calgary go to the polls Thursday in a provincial byelection that appears to have become bigger than the sum of its votes.
Polls and political observers suggest Calgary-Foothills is a three-way race among the governing NDP, the Opposition Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives, who have held the seat since 1971, but gave it up when former premier Jim Prentice quit politics on election night last spring when the New Democrats swept the PCs from power.
"I guess it's not surprising that it's become hotly contested," said Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown. "The NDP does really want to win this because they want to prove their honeymoon isn't over. They want to prove winning the general election wasn't a fluke.
"And of course the Wildrose party wants to prove it can win an urban riding."
Numbers released Wednesday showed that 4,146 voted in advance polls — about 12 per cent of those eligible. It's a figure that is higher than the advance turnout in the May 5 general election and in a byelection in the constituency last year.
Premier Rachel Notley's NDP has a comfortable 53-seat majority in the 87-seat legislature. She has stressed that Thursday's outcome is not a "litmus test" for her government.
Nevertheless, she has paid multiple visits to the constituency during the month-long campaign to show support for her candidate, former Calgary city councillor and NDP member of the legislature Bob Hawkesworth.
"(The campaign) has been to remind people that priorities this government has focused on around health care and education are promises that have been kept," said Hawkesworth in an interview.
Notley's government recently committed $1.4 billion to reverse planned Tory cuts to health care and to fund higher student enrolment this fall.
But the campaign is set against a background of oilpatch layoffs, recent tax increases to wealthy Albertans and corporations, and a looming $6-billion budget deficit.
It's been a nasty race at times.
The Wildrose, which doesn't hold a seat in Edmonton or Calgary, has accused the NDP of trying to scare votes by suggesting the Wildrose backs sweeping and punishing civil service job cuts.
The NDP has fired back at the Wildrose for a campaign pamphlet, written in Cantonese, that compared the government to communists. The Wildrose said it meant to say socialists and that was lost in translation.
Wildrose candidate Prasad Panda, an oilpatch executive, said voters he's talked to are not convinced the New Democrats hold the compass to lead Alberta back to prosperity.
"They're realizing the NDP tend to believe they have a mandate to implement their ideological agenda, whereas people are really worried about jobs and the economy," said Panda.
PC candidate Blair Houston, a restaurant owner, said despite Prentice's abrupt departure on election night before all the votes were even counted, he has not encountered residual anger at the Tories.
"I was very upset when Jim stepped down myself," said Houston. "I want to show these people that I'm here for them."
Calgary-Foothills voters are going to the ballot box for the third time in a little over 10 months and Brown suggested voter fatigue will be a factor. She cautioned against reading too much into the result.
"Everybody is talking about it like it's going to be some indicator of something bigger — but honestly this byelection is just going to come down to grassroots organization.
"It's really just going to be an indication of who's got the stronger ground game in that particular riding"
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