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Manitoba NDP Leader Greg Selinger speaks to media after visiting Government House in Winnipeg on Sept. 6, 2011 to officially drop the writ on the provincial election campaign. (JASON HALSTEAD/Jason Halstead/The Canadian Press)
Manitoba NDP Leader Greg Selinger speaks to media after visiting Government House in Winnipeg on Sept. 6, 2011 to officially drop the writ on the provincial election campaign. (JASON HALSTEAD/Jason Halstead/The Canadian Press)

Voting

Five provinces head to the polls asking if it's time for a change Add to ...

It’s election season in Canada, with five provincial races in gear – or about to be. The Globe’s John Ibbitson keeps tabs on who’s ahead, what matters and what it all means for the rest of Canada.

In Manitoba, Winnipeg will write the script; in Ontario, the suburbs will tell the tale. In other parts of the country, the story may already be told.

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Thanks to a spate of fixed-election-date laws, voters are heading to the polls this fall in an unprecedented wave of five provincial elections.

Conservative challengers have a real shot at defeating an incumbent Liberal government in Ontario and the NDP in Manitoba. If those challenges succeed, conservatives of one stripe or another will control provincial capitals from the Ottawa River to the Rockies, providing Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives with powerful new allies.

But those challenges could fail, setting the table for possible confrontation as first ministers seek to thrash out new agreements on health care and equalization. Either way, we’ll know in a matter of weeks.

In Ontario and Manitoba, writs have dropped on what appear to be mirror-image campaigns that are far too close to call.

Premier Greg Selinger should be toast. The NDP is seeking a fourth consecutive mandate from Manitobans, no easy feat for any party. The Conservatives under Hugh McFadyen are well organized and well funded. The Tories can point to overcrowded hospitals, the growing provincial debt and a controversial power line proposal as proof that the NDP is out of gas.

Except the NDP tank might be fuller than critics think. The economy is booming, with unemployment well below the national average. Most Manitobans appear to approve of Mr. Selinger’s handling of severe spring and summer floods. And the province is still giddy over the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL.

The Winnipeg Free Press forecasts that about 10 seats in Winnipeg and a few others outside the capital will decide things. Mr. McFadyen will need to take most of them to win a majority in the 57-seat legislature. The race to the Oct. 4 vote is too close to call.

The same is true of Ontario, where Progressive Conservative challenger Tim Hudak is trying to prevent Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty from winning a third term two days later on Oct. 6. In Ontario elections, voters in suburban ridings surrounding Toronto – and to a lesser extent, Ottawa and other cities – usually decide the winner.

The issues in Ontario – debt, energy policy, health care – are largely the same as in Manitoba. And the real, defining issue is also the same: Is it time for a change?

Polls show the PCs enjoying a consistent, though narrow, lead. Whether a sudden surge in support for the NDP under Andrea Horwath is tied to the death of federal leader Jack Layton and will prove ephemeral is one big question in this opening week of the campaign.

Another big question is what, if any, effect the May 2 federal election will have on the races. The federal Conservatives did well in both Manitoba and Ontario, knocking out entrenched Liberal incumbents in both provinces. Will the federal Tory tide seep into provincial politics? Or will Manitoba and Ontario voters prefer to keep their provincial government a different stripe?

Elsewhere, things look more predictable. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Kathy Dunderdale is trying to win her first election as premier, after replacing the charismatic Danny Williams. Is it time for a change on the Rock?

Not likely. The Liberals are in disarray, after former leader Yvonne Jones was forced to step down this summer for health reasons. Kevin Aylward is now leading the team, but barring calamities, Ms. Dunderdale should keep her job when the province votes Oct. 11.

Liberal Premier Robert Ghiz is similarly expected to prevail in Prince Edward Island on Oct. 3.

And Brad Wall, premier and leader of the conservative Saskatchewan Party, is expected to have little difficulty fending off Dwain Lingenfelter's NDP on Nov. 7.

But to resurrect a cliché: Election campaigns matter. This stumble in a debate, that unexpected embarrassment mid-campaign can trash what seemed like the safest prediction.

Whether conservatives conquer or progressives prevail in these provincial votes will affect how Ottawa funds and provinces deliver health care and other social services to Canadians in all provinces and territories.

Election campaigns matter for that reason, too.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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