The NDP have swept to a decisive victory in both British Columbia by-elections – including a landslide win in an area where the party has not won since provincial elections began more than a century ago.
The results – particularly in Chilliwack-Hope, an area where a left-wing party has never won – are what the NDP hoped for and the B.C. Liberals had feared. A split in the right-of-centre vote tore down what had been two Liberal bastions, with the NDP scoring clear wins in both.
In Port Moody-Coquitlam, former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini scored an outright majority, with 54 per cent of the vote, with all polls reporting; B.C. Liberal Dennis Marsden trailed with 30 per cent; B.C. Conservative Christine Clarke had 15 per cent.
In Chilliwack-Hope, the NDP margin of victory was narrower, with Gwen O'Mahony scoring 41 per cent, with all polls reporting. B.C. Liberal Laurie Throness received 31 per cent; B.C. Conservative John Martin, 25 per cent.
The split in the right-of-centre vote in Chilliwack handed victory to the NDP – but the combined Liberal-Conservative vote tally was lower than in the 2009 general election, indicating the NDP has had some success in peeling away left-leaning Liberal voters.
The by-elections have been fought not just for the seats, but as a way to shape the political narrative of the months leading up to the May, 2013 general election.
In a statement released by her office, Premier Christy Clark said the results showed a split of the right-of-centre vote among her B.C. Liberals and the B.C. Conservatives. "It's never been clearer that only a unified free enterprise coalition can defeat the NDP," she said in the statement.
For NDP Leader Adrian Dix, the results are proof that his party is ready to expel the Liberals from power after more than a decade in opposition. "Quite a night," said an ebullient Mr. Dix, his voice cracked from cheering at a packed Chilliwack restaurant. "It's a substantial win. Seventy per cent of voters voted against the government tonight."
The New Democrats expanded their share of the vote and gained a toehold in the Fraser Valley: "it shows when people are given a real choice, the NDP is going to gain votes," he said.
The third-place results were disappointing for the Conservatives, whose leader vowed a better showing in the 2013 general election. "Next time out, we'll have a better organization on the ground," John Cummins told reporters. Mr. Cummins denied that his party split the centre-right vote and handed victory to the New Democrats. "The Liberal vote disintegrated, our vote is solid," he said.
The B.C. Liberals sought to regain popularity by changing leaders last year, but the party has fared little better under Premier Clark. Battered by the introduction of the harmonized sales tax, the governing B.C. Liberals have since sunk far in the polls, with two recent opinion surveys showing them neck in neck with the B.C. Conservatives – with both parties well behind the NDP.
The B.C. Liberals won handily in both Port-Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope in the 2009 general election, racking up double-digit margins over the NDP.
The 2012 by-elections delivered a much different result, underscoring the seismic shift in B.C. politics in the last two and a half years – underscored by the fact that both the NDP and Conservative candidates in the Port Moody-Coquitlam race are former B.C. Liberals.
In 2009, the Liberals won Port Moody-Coquitlam with 52 per cent of vote compared to 40 per cent for the B.C. NDP, with the Green Party third with 6 per cent.
There was no B.C. Conservative candidate in the race. Indeed, the current B.C. Conservative candidate Christine Clarke worked in that campaign as a volunteer for the Liberal victor, Iain Black.
The B.C. New Democrats recruited Mr. Trasolini, who came to provincial politics after 15 years in Port Moody municipal politics. The popular mayor was once a B.C. Liberal, and chaired Premier Clark's first successful MLA campaign in 1995, but dropped his partisan affiliation after being elected mayor.
Mr. Marsden, the B.C. Liberal candidate, is a branch manager for a credit union and a former treasurer for the Eagle Ridge Hospital Foundation.
The Chilliwack-Hope area has been a traditional stronghold for centre-right parties, switching from Social Credit to B.C. Liberal in 1991.
In 2009, B.C. Liberal Barry Penner defeated Ms. O'Mahony by a comfortable 20-point margin, with 53 per cent to her 33 per cent. In that contest, the B.C. Conservative candidate took just 7 per cent, with the Greens at 6 per cent.
Mr. Penner, who held the riding since 1996, stepped down in January.
Mr. Penner's would-be successor, Mr. Throness, was chosen by the party for his strong federal Conservative ties, in the hopes that he could bring back disaffected B.C. Liberals. Mr. Throness was chief of staff to the popular former Conservative MP for the region, Chuck Strahl.
His rival for right-of-centre votes has a higher profile in the community. Mr. Martin, a university professor and popular local newspaper columnist, ran a low-budget campaign but tried to capitalize on the B.C. Liberals' sagging support.