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British Columbia NDP MLA Leonard Krog gives his speech after winning as Mayor for Nanaimo, B.C., following the municipal election in Nanaimo, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Generally, by-elections are inconsequential barometers of a government’s performance, a chance, in some instances, for the electorate to send an unmistakable message of disenchantment. But seldom do they have any impact on the essential calculus that keeps a government in power.

Which is why the recently called vote in Nanaimo to fill the seat vacated by long-time NDP MLA Leonard Krog is such a rarity – a midterm ballot that has the potential to disrupt the razor-thin majority that the governing alliance of New Democrats and Greens enjoy, altering the math enough to undermine their hold on power. The result has the capacity to set off a chain of events that reverberates across the country.

If the Liberals were to win the contest, there would be 43-43 seat tie in the legislature, which would force the Speaker, the former Liberal now sitting as an Independent, Darryl Plecas, to break all deadlocked votes – including ones of confidence.

Suddenly, the NDP’s vision of governing until the next slated election in 2021 would vanish. Yes, technically, it’s possible the government could carry on enduring stalemates and forcing the Speaker to take sides, but it’s hardly a practical, long-term scenario. More likely, a Liberal win in Nanaimo would force an early general election.

Naturally, the potential consequences mean this by-election will get a lot more attention. By-elections are notorious for lower turnouts. They are also notorious in British Columbia for being very unkind to the government of the day.

In 12 attempts since 1981 to defend a seat in a by-election, sitting governments have won only twice. In both those instances, it was premier Christy Clark who prevailed. Ironically, in the case of Nanaimo, it is Ms. Clark’s absence from the political scene that gives the Liberals a fighting chance, such a lightning rod had she become in her last few years in power.

Nonetheless, triumphing in the harbour city remains a tall order for the Opposition party. Nanaimo remains a blue-collar town that has been very loyal to the New Democrats over the years. Mr. Krog won by nearly 4,000 votes in the 2017 election. He knew margins of victories that were higher in elections before that.

The NDP has an excellent candidate running in Sheila Malcolmson, the former MP who resigned her federal seat to take a shot provincially. She is a popular, known commodity. But the Liberals also have a strong candidate in Tony Harris, whose family name is well known. His late father, Tom, was a celebrated area car-dealer. If there is a wild card it could be the Green Party’s, Michele Ney, the offspring of another local legend, former mayor Frank Ney. The BC Conservative Party is planning to run a candidate as well, which could make an uphill fight for the Liberals even more steep.

But Ms. Ney could create real problems for the New Democrats, working off of the pitch: Elect a Green and it won’t change the balance of power in the legislature. The danger for the NDP is a situation in which many people like the sound of that appeal, and vote Green, but not quite enough to send Ms. Ney to Victoria. That split of the progressive vote would almost certainly guarantee a Liberal win.

And the implications of that are significant.

As mentioned, it would be difficult imagining Premier John Horgan clinging to power for any length of time with a 43-43 deadlock in the legislature. The only question would be the timing of an election. Spit-balling different scenarios, a Liberal victory in a general vote this year would create a conservative front across the West, assuming Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party form government in Alberta after the vote there this spring. (The BC Liberals are Liberals in name only, and are ideologically more aligned with conservative parties in Canada).

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. The B.C. New Democrats remain fairly popular in the province, after ending the Liberals' 16-year reign. And while Mr. Horgan has moved beyond any honeymoon period, he is still well liked, especially on Vancouver Island.

All we know for sure now is Nanaimo is about to become the political centre of attention over the new few weeks. The city will feel more loved and special than it has been in a long time.

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