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Obby Khan in downtown Winnipeg, Oct. 29, 2021.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Voters in the suburbs of southwest Winnipeg go to the polls Tuesday in a test of government popularity in a traditional stronghold for the ruling Progressive Conservatives.

One political analyst says the opposition parties might have a chance in the upscale Fort Whyte constituency because the government is low in opinion polls and Premier Heather Stefanson has faced criticism since taking office last fall.

“I think that the Liberal candidate, in particular, has been visible … but the smart money is still on the Tories holding this seat,” Royce Koop, a University of Manitoba political studies professor, said in an interview.

The by-election is being held to replace former premier Brian Pallister, who resigned last fall as the government continued to face low polling numbers and high COVID-19 case counts.

Manitoba has recorded the second-highest per-capita pandemic death rate, behind Quebec, data compiled by the federal government indicates. During a spike in cases last spring, dozens of intensive care patients were sent to other provinces to free up bed space.

Ms. Stefanson, who was health minister during that time, was elected Tory leader at the end of October. Opinion polls since then suggest the government’s popularity continues to lag behind that of the New Democrats, especially in Winnipeg.

Ms. Stefanson has run into more disapproval in recent months over her handling of the pandemic.

She was criticized by some health professionals for easing public health orders while intensive care units were still running well above normal capacity. Last week, she was asked in the Legislature about the death of a COVID-19 patient, but began her response by congratulating her son’s hockey team for winning a provincial championship. She later apologized.

The Tory candidate in the by-election is a former player with the Canadian Football League Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Obby Khan, who opened a chain of restaurants after retiring and is well-known in the business community.

The Manitoba Liberals, who have three of the legislature’s 57 seats, are running another former Bomber. Willard Reaves started his campaign early and has been knocking on doors consistently.

The Liberals have little money and traditionally run a distant third in provincial elections. But they have proven to be competitive in by-elections because spending limits are smaller and party volunteers can focus on one race.

The New Democrats are running Trudy Schroeder, a former director with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and hope their strong polling provincewide can translate into a victory.

The Green party candidate is Nicolas Geddert, a community organizer and volunteer. Patrick Allard, a contractor who has run his own business for 15 years, is running as an Independent.

Fort Whyte has been staunchly Progressive Conservative. It is one of four Winnipeg seats the Tories held on to while they were in opposition during the NDP government of popular premier Gary Doer.

“It’s never a sure thing, especially in a by-election, because people know that their vote ultimately doesn’t affect who is going to form the government, so they’re much more open to voting for smaller parties,” Prof. Koop said.

“But, that said, it’s a traditionally strong Tory seat and there would have to be a real number of setbacks for the Tories to lose this seat.”

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