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ontario by-election

Ontario's two leading parties will be able to put their own spin on the five by-elections held on Thursday.

For Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, holding on to a couple of the ridings - including Dalton McGuinty's old seat of Ottawa South - staved off complete embarrassment. For Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives, a long-awaited breakthrough in the City of Toronto courtesy of deputy mayor Doug Holyday helped make up for disappointing results elsewhere.

But it was Andrea Horwath's NDP that stole the show - enough to set New Democrats at ease about their party's ability to compete with a new, relatively left-of-centre Liberal Premier who has been threatening to eat their lunch, and perhaps prompt a few of them to wonder if they should have forced a general election when they had the chance this past spring.

The NDP had been widely expected to win the Windsor riding long held by former finance minister Dwight Duncan, though perhaps not quite by the ridiculously large margin it achieved. But while it was known to be competitive in London West, which became a two-way race with the Tories after former teachers' union boss Ken Coran fizzled out for the Liberals, few anticipated that Ms. Horwath's party would romp to a comfortable victory there too.

Even Adam Giambrone, the former downtown Toronto city councillor who controversially laid claim to the NDP's nomination in the suburban riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, did better than expected - finishing a strong enough third to give the NDP a glimmer of hope there in future elections.

Considering that the New Democrats also pulled off a stunning upset last year in Kitchener-Waterloo, where the Liberals had hoped that the retirement of a veteran Progressive Conservative MPP would give them the extra seat they needed to restore their majority government, it is safe to say neither of the other parties will relish the opportunity to fight more by-elections against them.

Still, for those inclined to see the NDP's recent success as a harbinger of good tidings in the next general election - or evidence that there should have already been one - a bit of context is in order.

First, as is usually the case in by-elections, the recent ones in Ontario have placed far more focus on local candidates than general campaigns do. To Ms. Horwath's credit, she has helped her cause by recruiting extremely well - city councillor and former CBC personality Percy Hatfield in Windsor, former school board vice-chair Peggy Sattler in London, former school board chair Catherine Fife in Kitchener-Waterloo last year. That augurs well for her slate of candidates next election, but it will matter more how Ms. Horwath performs alongside the other leaders, and how well she withstands the spotlight if her party is more competitive than previously.

Equally important, the NDP has some history of doing well in by-elections because of its ability to flood a single riding or two with volunteers. That was especially the case this time around, because many public-sector unions decided to punish the Liberals for labour measures imposed before Mr. McGuinty's departure. It remains to be seen if the unions will similarly turn their backs on the Liberals in a general campaign, when doing so could help Mr. Hudak's Tories get elected. And regardless, on-the-ground organization plays a disproportionate role in by-elections, which because of low turnout are largely contingent on get-out-the-vote efforts.

While Ms. Horwath may need to quietly remind her own party of such caveats, she's unlikely to let it get in the way of enjoying Thursday's results. Only a couple of months ago, she herself seemed to be struggling to adapt to Ms. Wynne replacing Mr. McGuinty. Ms. Horwath may struggle again when the legislature returns in the fall, but for now at least she can boast that the Liberal leadership change has not stopped the migration of left-of-centre voters to the NDP.

Ms. Horwath might also hold up this week's success to her fellow New Democrats as evidence of why not bringing down the Liberals was a good idea. From the outset of her leadership, she has advocated fora slow-and-steady build of the sort that Jack Layton attempted with the federal NDP. Having established three new footholds between elections, perhaps her patience is being rewarded.