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NDP candidate Jodie Wickens, centre, celebrates her provincial by-election win in the riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain as NDP Leader John Horgan, left, stands by her side on Feb. 2.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

NDP wins in a pair of B.C. provincial by-elections this week have left the two leading parties in a fierce debate about the political meaning of the outcome.

Defeat is bitter to the B.C. Liberals, but they are suggesting the results will be irrelevant to the general election a little more than a year from now, in which the governing party will seek a fifth-straight term that could bring it to 20 years in office.

However, the NDP says its by-election wins – one in a suburban riding the Liberals held since it was created in 2009 – give the party momentum as it prepares to compete in both urban and suburban areas to return to government for the first time since 2001.

On Tuesday night, the NDP's Melanie Mark won Vancouver-Mount Pleasant with 61 per cent of the vote, becoming the first aboriginal woman elected to the B.C. Legislature. The riding was previously held by long-time New Democrat MLA Jenny Kwan, now the MP for Vancouver East.

B.C. Liberal Gavin Dew, with 11 per cent, came third, behind the Green Party's Pete Fry – the son of Liberal MP Hedy Fry – with 26 per cent of the vote. Elections BC said the turnout was 22 per cent, which is down from 50 per cent of registered voters in 2013 general election.

The riding has been one of the most reliable for the party for decades. When the NDP was reduced to two seats in the 79-seat legislature in 2001, one of the seats it kept was Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.

In Coquitlam-Burke Mountain in the northeastern suburbs of the Lower Mainland, the NDP's Jodie Wickens won with 46 per cent of the vote compared with 38 per cent for the B.C. Liberals' Joan Isaacs. The Greens' Joe Keithley came third with 14 per cent. The turnout was 20 per cent, down from 53 per cent in the 2013 election. The riding was previously held by a Liberal.

Ms. Wickens called the outcome a "starting point" for the 2017 election. "It's a taste test for what the general population is looking for," she said, referring to the discussion of such issues as transit and how to make life in the province more affordable.

Elsewhere in the riding on Tuesday night, some Liberals said it was has challenge to get their supporters motivated to vote given the reduced political stakes of a by-election that would not affect the government.

"Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of interest in the by-election, so we came in just a little bit short, just a couple more hundred people probably would have done it," Ms. Isaacs told supporters in her concession speech.

Still, Ms. Isaacs said she hopes to be in Liberal candidate in the provincial election in May, 2017. "I look forward to seeing what my [NDP] opponent will bring back to Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, and if she doesn't deliver, I'll be one of the first there asking the tough questions," she said.

Mike McDonald, a former campaign director for the B.C. Liberals, said by-elections have set narratives for governments in decline, but he does not think that is the case here. "It's feedback, but I don't think it's necessarily a sign of the future, especially when the turnout is so low," he said.

He added that the government had trouble finding an issue, especially because its fate did not depend on the outcome. "The NDP had difficulty too. It's just that they did a little better at mobilizing their support than the B.C. Liberals did."

But Craig Keating, president of the B.C. New Democrats, suggested the Liberals are dismissing clear judgments from voters. "If you talk about the issues that are kitchen-table issues to people, they will respond," he said.

He was also skeptical of the theory that Liberal voters did not participate because little was at stake. "They should take out the mirror, take a look at themselves and find out why it is people stayed home," he said.

In a statement, Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May saluted the Green candidates for finishing second in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant and increasing the vote in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain over the 2013 election.

But by-elections before provincial votes have not always created winning political momentum. In 2012, the NDP won by-elections in Chilliwack-Hope and Port Moody-Coquitlam only to see the Liberals take the seats back in May, 2013, on the way to their fourth-straight majority even though polls suggested they were doomed.

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