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Manitoba Liberal Party leader Rana Bokhari.
Manitoba Liberal Party leader Rana Bokhari.

Manitoba NDP’s woes give Liberals a chance of election breakthrough Add to ...

It’s the one region of the country where provincial Liberals have been almost a complete non-entity.

Justin Trudeau’s affiliates hold government in Ontario and across Atlantic Canada, and parties of the same name if somewhat different ideologies in Quebec and British Columbia, but across the Prairies Liberals haven’t even been competitive opposition parties in decades. Their brand just hasn’t aligned with the various forms of populism prevalent in those provinces, and relatively moderate conservative and New Democratic parties haven’t left them a lot of fertile ground to stake out.

Now, that may be about to change. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Liberals have a chance of a breakthrough in the election set for this April in Manitoba – a place where they hold one seat in the legislature and, outside of a single election in the 1980s, have been a distant third for the past half-century.

Recent polls hint at that opportunity. In December, Winnipeg-based Probe Research found the Liberals, who received 8 per cent of the popular vote in the last Manitoba election, at 29 per cent – seven points ahead of the governing New Democrats, albeit well behind the Official Opposition Progressive Conservatives. Around the same time, Innovative Research Group had them a strong second as well. Mainstreet Research has had them slightly lower, tied with the NDP at 20 per cent, but the numbers at least suggest new-found openness toward them.

That may not have much to do with the performance of their leader, Rana Bokhari, a 38-year-old lawyer who currently lacks much public profile. To some extent, it is likely a halo effect on the Liberal brand from Mr. Trudeau, whose party won half the province’s 13 federal seats last fall for its best Manitoba showing since 1993. But mostly, the Liberals’ new-found hope is about what they are up against.

In its 17th year in power, the NDP is highly unpopular and spectacularly dysfunctional. Facing public anger for Premier Greg Selinger’s 2013 decision to raise the provincial sales tax, a slew of ministers and political staff quit, complaining of autocratic and inept management. Mr. Selinger responded by calling a leadership contest and, largely through union backing, edged out two erstwhile cabinet members to keep his job. This appears to have been a Pyrrhic victory, since his image has never recovered, and very few party stalwarts who abandoned him have returned to help prepare for the election, leaving him with an inexperienced campaign team rather than the machine he inherited from his predecessor Gary Doer.

If disaffected NDP supporters park with the Liberals, the ensuing centre-left vote splits could benefit the PCs. But the Tories have some risk of driving their own supporters to the Liberals as well.

That risk is mostly in the form of PC Leader Brian Pallister, to whom moderate voters may have difficulty warming. That’s partly because of his past social conservatism, which the NDP has highlighted to raise concerns about his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, and also because Mr. Pallister is an awkward public performer prone to saying peculiar things. In 2013, he included “infidel atheists” among the groups to whom he extended a Christmas greeting (which he subsequently insisted was not meant as a joke); the following year he pronounced that he doesn’t like Halloween because the “deceit” of trick or treating “is bad for the kids.”

The PCs have worked to soften Mr. Pallister’s image, including through TV ads playing up his past as a teacher, but it remains to be seen what happens if he veers off script during the campaign. While the PC should dominate in rural Manitoba, it is not hard to find Tories worried about how Mr. Pallister will play in Winnipeg, which accounts for roughly half the province’s seats and almost uniformly sent Liberals to Ottawa last fall.

What also remains to be seen is whether Ms. Bokhari is ready for her moment in the spotlight if dissatisfaction with the usual options puts her there. Her agenda, so far, is a hodgepodge of half-ideas ranging from freezing rents and exploring a guaranteed annual income to cheaper booze and opening the province to Uber. Her public performance has been tentative, and her party lacks much organizational infrastructure. It’s not even clear she’ll be able to claim a seat in the legislature for herself, since one of the NDP’s few recent successes has been to recruit star candidate Wab Kinew to run against her.

Even if Ms. Bokhari performs well, and everything breaks the Liberals’ way, winning government might be too big a leap; enough seats to deny the Tories a majority might be a more realistic aspiration.

But that would be enough to match the one provincial election Manitoba Liberals look back fondly on, in 1988, when Sharon Carstairs capitalized on fatigue with the governing NDP and the Tories underwhelming to lead her party to a strong second-place finish. Ms. Carstairs was a virtual unknown before that, too, and for victory-starved Prairie Liberals she’s now an icon. It might not take all that much for Ms. Bokhari to write her name into the history books, too.

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