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Riding profile: Can incumbent van Dongen claim Abbotsford South as an independent?

Abbotsford South and its earlier riding configurations have been slam-dunk territory for the B.C. Liberals since their perennial candidate John van Dongen first squeaked his way to Victoria in a hard-fought by-election in 1995.

"The Liberals could run a Labrador retriever there and get elected," says Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman.

But this time, all bets are off.

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Although Mr. van Dongen is running again, political turmoil has taken root among the bucolic dairy farms and suburban streets that make up this split, urban-rural constituency.

The three-time cabinet minister, himself a former dairy farmer, has abandoned two parties within the past year, first the Liberals, then the upstart B.C. Conservative Party.

After five successful campaigns under the Liberal banner, Mr. van Dongen is now seeking re-election as an independent.

Liberal fortunes there seemed to take a further hit when party brass, against the wishes of the local riding executive, bestowed their nomination on Darryl Plecas, a prominent criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley.

That prompted executive members to resign in protest, and Councillor Moe Gill, a long-time Liberal stalwart who had been vying for the nomination, to seek revenge by running as an independent against Finance Minister Mike de Jong in neighbouring Abbotsford West.

The various spats have made Abbotsford South one of the ridings to watch on election night, with observers wondering whether the NDP's Lakhvinder Jhaj, who has offended no one, might ride to victory on a split, three-way vote.

Mr. van Dongen doesn't rule it out. "This is a free-enterprise riding, but if you take my vote last time [58 per cent], and it divides 30-30 between Darryl and me, both of us could lose."

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Mr. Plecas, however, who concedes he's still struggling to cut down his discursive academic dialogue into voter-friendly, 30-second sound bites, professes not to worry.

According to the first-time candidate, his veteran, independent rival is doomed. "I just don't see John as a threat," Mr. Plecas said.

"He was Liberal, then Conservative. Now, he's independent. I'm not sure what's left. Maybe he'll defect from the independents, too."

Ms. Jhaj doesn't know what to make of all the shaking going on in the riding's Liberal ranks. "It's very hard to tell how the dynamics will play out. I'm just going to work hard to get our message out."

She is not an election newcomer. In 2009, she ran second to then-Liberal John Slater in her long-time riding of Boundary-Similkameen, where she and her husband owned an orchard and small store.

Since then, the family has returned to Abbotsford, the place of her birth, schooling and marriage, and Ms. Jhaj won the nod to try for the NDP's first-ever electoral breakthrough in the conservative Fraser Valley enclave.

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"People are looking for change," she said. "I expect a close race."

Mr. Plecas insists that internal riding differences are no longer a factor. South Asians are rallying to his side, despite the defection of Mr. Gill, he said. "I don't want to assume I'll win, but I'm increasingly confident."

Mr. van Dongen knows there are those who wonder about his decision to quit two parties in such short order. But he points out: "I have had problems with two leaders, not with political parties or their philosophies. I think there is room for independents like myself, who are broadly experienced, to help rebuild the institutions of government."

There is no local issue that divides the candidates. All strongly oppose Metro Vancouver's interest in building a waste-to-energy facility in the area. All want better transit, particularly to Vancouver, and all want good things for the riding.

Indeed, the result on election night may simply come down to how voters feel about the outspoken Mr. van Dongen, their bearded, polarizing incumbent for the past 18 years.

Meanwhile, Mr. Banman, the mayor, says the outcome in all three Abbotsford ridings is uncertain for the first time in eons.

"This is a city to watch. We could end up with an independent, a Liberal and an NDP. All the parties need to bring their A game to the campaign, now more than ever."

Riding Snapshot

2009 election: Liberal John van Dongen won the riding with 58.47 per cent of the vote; NDP candidate Bonnie Jasiver Rai came in second with 25.65 per cent; Green candidate Daniel Stephen Bryce was third with 7.61 per cent

Population: 47,990

Seniors, 65 and older, in private households: 15 per cent (B.C. average 14 per cent)

Average household income, before tax: $61,903 (B.C. average $67,675)

Source: Elections B.C. and B.C. Stats

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