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BC Liberals denied majority as final election count leaves government in danger

B.C. Premier Christy Clark addresses Liberal MLAs during a caucus meeting in Vancouver on May 16, 2017.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

With all the ballots from the May 9 election officially in, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has been denied a majority government after the Liberals' hope for recapturing one more seat evaporated on Wednesday.

After three days of recounting ballots in two ridings, and adding in previously unopened absentee ballots across the province, Elections BC's results showed no change in seat numbers for each of the three parties in the May 9 election – 43 Liberal, 41 NDP and three Green. Now, Ms. Clark must win the support of the Green Party caucus for a Throne Speech and a budget if she is to hang on to power.

"With 43 BC Liberal candidates elected as MLAs, and a plurality in the legislature, we have a responsibility to move forward and form a government," the Premier said in a statement. "Our priority is to protect our strong economy and to manage B.C.'s finances responsibly, while listening closely to British Columbians on how we address important social and environmental priorities and how we can make B.C. politics more responsive, transparent, and accountable."

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If Ms. Clark fails to strike a deal with the Greens, the NDP will be ready for a confrontation that aims to topple Ms. Clark's government. That could send the province back to the polls, but the New Democrats – who have not won an election in B.C. since 1996 – hope to negotiate an alliance with the Greens that would allow them to form a government.

Opinion: With all the votes finally counted in B.C., this is where the bartering gets real

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver has been facing increasing pressure from progressive advocacy groups to reject a pact with the Liberals in favour of the New Democrats under Leader John Horgan, but the bitter rivalry between the two progressive parties during the campaign might get in the way.

Mr. Horgan told reporters on Wednesday he is optimistic his party will reach some kind of agreement with the Greens that would allow him to command a majority of votes in the House. He floated the possibility of approaching Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon with an accord that could avoid the need for Ms. Clark's government to be defeated in the Legislature on a vote of confidence. "We want to do this as quickly as possible," the NDP Leader said, adding that a majority of British Columbians voted for change. "Christy Clark and the Liberals came up short."

Mr. Weaver said he hopes to be able to declare within a week which party the Greens will support. "We recognize British Columbians want stability," he said at a news conference in the garden just below the Premier's office in Victoria. "I don't think British Columbians want to go back to the polls any time soon. We have said to both parties we are willing to negotiate for the long term. … We are here to ensure that Parliament works."

With almost two million ballots cast in 87 ridings, the election was finally determined in a single riding – Courtenay-Comox – where the initial count gave the NDP a lead of just nine votes.

If the Liberals won the seat on the final count, Ms. Clark would have held a bare majority.

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Because of the stakes, the modest Elections BC district office in the city of Courtenay became the most intensely watched race in the final days of counting. Chief Electoral Officer Keith Archer arrived to provide oversight as a cluster of Elections BC officials and pairs of scrutineers from each political party in the race spent three days this week reviewing the ballots as the envelopes were unboxed and unsealed.

"I would say everyone has a professional iciness," said Glen Sanford, the BC NDP's deputy director, who was one of the party's scrutineers. The Liberals brought in Toronto-based lawyer Jack Siegel, who specializes in elections law, to oversee the count for them.

On Monday, the district's electoral officer, Hildy Richardson, headed up the recount of ballots that had been counted on election day. Tuesday and Wednesday were spent tallying the absentee ballots.

NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard's initial lead crumbled on the recount, which put the Liberals' Jim Benninger ahead by three.

The drama continued through the week, but the absentee ballots gave Ms. Leonard a small but comfortable lead of 189 votes.

There is not yet certainty: Either party could apply for a judicial recount in the coming week. However, the probability of one being approved is low, and not one has been granted in the past five elections other than when the margin of victory is small enough to trigger one automatically.

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British Columbia has not had a minority government since 1952. In a province long dominated by two political parties, this election result represents a dramatic change in the landscape with the rise of the Green Party.

With just three seats, it has huge leverage in shaping what comes next.

Even before the final results were announced, the Liberals and the New Democrats had dispatched teams of negotiators to meet with the Greens. Mr. Weaver has set out three "deal breakers" that include granting the Greens official party status in the legislature, and adopting campaign finance reform and electoral reform. Those talks are set to continue.

The Greens oppose some central planks in the Liberal agenda, including the construction of the Site C dam and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline, which could make a Liberal-Green alliance difficult.

If Mr. Weaver wins an agreement on his terms, the next provincial election would be executed under a proportional representation electoral system.

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