Tight Liberal/NDP race predicted for Westmount-Ville Marie by-election

Is it possible the federal by-election campaign underway in Westmount-Ville Marie could escalate from a laid-back trot to a spirited gallop, and that the race could end up being between the incumbent Liberals and the NDP?

To some, that may be a little too far-fetched to believe, given the Liberals’ longstanding and overwhelming lead here in past elections.

The NDP, however, are currently having a field day, because of a recent news report, in which Christian Bourque, vice-president of the Montreal polling firm Léger Marketing, suggested that a Liberal victory on Sept. 8 is not a sure thing.

The Liberals have held the riding since 1958, and the last Liberal candidate, Lucienne Robillard, who was the MP since 1996, outdistanced her closest rival, a Conservative, by more than two votes to one two years ago in the general election.

Nonetheless, the Liberals, who finished with nearly 19,000 votes then, lost more than 10 per cent of their usual support among the riding’s constituents. The NDP, on the other hand, who had finished fourth for years, managed to come third, with a couple of percentage points more.

But, according to Bourque, if there is a time when the NDP stands to make further gains on the island of Montreal, it is probably right about now, so he predicts a fairly close race between the the NDP and the Liberals.

Former radio host Anne Lagacé-Dowson is running for the NDP against former Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau for the Liberals.

While Lagacé-Dowson is a political neophyte, Garneau is not. In 2006, he ran for the Liberals in the Montreal off-island riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, but lost to the Bloc Québécois candidate by nearly 10,000 votes.

Bourque, who was interviewed by CBC Radio, maintains that an NDP win in Westmount-Ville Marie would be an especially hard blow to the Liberals — one that could once again shake the party’s confidence in its leader, Stéphane Dion, and raise serious questions among Liberal strategists.

While the Conservatives came second in 2006 and managed to boost their support in the riding by more than seven per cent, Bourque doesn’t expect Guy Dufort, the Tories’ candidate this time, to make much of an impact, nor does he hold out much hope for Bloc Québécois candidate Charles Larivée. Bourque had no comment on Claude Genest who is running for the Green Party.

Given the high stakes involved in Quebec for both the Liberals and the NDP, perhaps inevitably the scenario in Westmount-Ville Marie recalls the by-election held in Outremont in September last year, which pitted Liberal star candidate Jocelyn Coulon against newly-minted NDPer Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister.

Garnering nearly 48 per cent support, to 29 per cent for Coulon, Mulcair was the undisputed winner. He then went on to be appointed by NDP leader Jack Layton to spearhead the NDP’s efforts to make further inroads in the province. Mulcair is only the second NDP MP ever to be elected in Quebec, and currently the only NDPer in the province to hold a House of Commons seat.

But if there is a fairly obvious difference between the situations in Outremont and Westmount-Ville Marie it is that the Liberals had been steadily losing ground for years to the Bloc Québécois in the predominantly francophone Outremont riding.

During a lull in Quebec nationalism, support apparently shifted to the like-minded NDP. However, the numbers indicate that the Liberals still enjoy an overwhelming lead in predominantly anglophone Westmount-Ville Marie. “Obviously there’s history here. It’s been Liberal for quite some time,” says Lagacé-Dowson, acknowledging she faces a steep uphill grade. She adds, however, that “this riding may surprise some people. That feeling of being taken for granted is a disagreeable sentiment. ” … In Outremont, I think there was a similar feeling — that people had voted in a certain way over decades and didn’t have much to show for it. I suspect that there are some Liberals in this riding who are feeling that way.”

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