Calgary-Foothills byelection: 5 things to watch for

Political watchers will be watching the Calgary-Foothills byelection results closely. CBC's Brooks DeCillia breaks down exactly what's at stake.

Traditional conservative riding could show how voters feel about NDP government

Candidates in the Calgary-Foothills byelection. From left, Liberal Ali Bin Zahid, Wildrose's Prasad Panda, PC Blair Houston, Green Party's Janet Keeping, NDP's Bob Hawkesworth and Alberta Party's Mark Taylor. Independent candidate Antoni Grochowski is not pictured. ( Party/CBC)

Voters in Calgary–Foothills can be excused for being a little weary of voting, as Thursday is the third time in a year that they've gone to the polls.

This time they're voting to replace former premier Jim Prentice. He stepped down — to the surprise and anger of many — during his concession speech on election night when the province's NDP obliterated the Progressive Conservative's 44-year-old dynasty.

Voters in Calgary-Foothills had picked Prentice to be their MLA in a byelection in October 2014. They went back to the polls on May 5 for the provincial election. And on Thursday, they were asked to cast a ballot again.

This byelection marks the first electoral test for the New Democrats since winning the spring election. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

Voter turnout

Byelections are notorious for low voter turnout — and most longtime political watchers don't expect Calgary-Foothills to be any different this time around.

The Wildrose might have the most at stake in this byelection. Political scientist Duane Bratt says questions will be raised about the party's ability to appeal to urban voters if Prasad Panda loses. (

In the October byelection, only about a third of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. This, despite a massive media blitz by the political parties — and a newly minted premier, fresh off of a victorious leadership race, running in the byelection.

"There was a lot of anticipation," remembers Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt. "It was high profile. There were TV ads, which is unprecedented — and voter turnout was 36.5 per cent."

Bratt said it's a Thursday before a long weekend, in the summer, in the midst of a federal campaign — which marks the fourth time locals will have to cast a ballot in a year. He doesn't put much stock in the high number of votes cast in advance polls last week — 12 per cent of the total electorate.

He said more and more voters are voting in advance and can't be used to predict voter turnout on election day.

Buyer's remorse?

Until their big win in May, the NDP had not won a seat in Calgary since 1989. But the spring election's orange crush swept over big parts of traditionally conservative Calgary, with the party winning 14 of the city's 25 seats.

Recent polls suggest the province is split over how Rachel Notley is doing as premier, with 45 per cent saying they approve — down from 62 per cent approval in May. Another 42 per cent say they disapprove.

Premier Rachel Notley gave a thumbs up to the crowd at the Alberta Legislature before the speech from the throne in June. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press )

The byelection marks the first time voters get to pass judgment on the new government. But byelections, say most analysts, are not a true barometer of the government's popularity. Voters often like to send a message of protest to the governing party.

A win tonight for the NDP would give the party justified bragging rights, according to some political experts.

"There is a huge upside if the NDP win this seat," Bratt said.

He said the government will spin a win as "an endorsement" of the party's agenda, including its corporate tax hike and controversial plan to review oil and gas royalty taxes.

The NDP has poured a lot of energy into the campaign. Notely and a number of cabinet ministers have spent time campaigning in the riding that's been PC since 1971. But even if the party loses the byelection, Bratt said it won't be a huge deal.

"They're still the government," he said. "They still have a large majority. This is a traditional conservative seat that last October the NDP had three per cent of the vote in."

How the once mighty Tories do

The PCs used to be a constant in Calgary politics. Former premiers Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein called Calgary home. The PCs won 20 of the city's 25 seats in 2012. 

Jim Prentice waves to supporters during his resignation speech after the Alberta election results in May. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

But the political dynasty was crushed in the May election, reduced to just 10 seats — and all but three members of Prentice's cabinet were defeated.

Most political watchers think the lingering anger over Prentice's decision to resign on election night could hurt the party. Even the PC's candidate in the riding, Blair Houston, admitted on CBC Radio that he's angry and frustrated with the former premier's decision to quit.

Bratt said a good showing in the race could breathe new life into the moribund PC party.

Wildrose has much at stake

The Wildrose Party, arguably, has the most at stake in this byelection. The mostly rural party needs to expand into the province's seat-rich cities if it ever wants to form a government.

Former Wildrose leader Paul Hinman upset the PC's tradition of winning in Calgary with a 2009 byelection victory in Calgary–Glenmore. Three years later, Hinman lost his seat in the general election, but the Wildrose captured two other seats in the city.

A byelection win in Calgary–Foothills would inject some energy into the party and cement it as the centre-right alternative to the NDP.

But a loss could result in questions being raised about the party's ability to appeal to urban voters. Bratt said some will wonder "are they simply a rural rump?"

Will the right be divided?

Political watchers will pay close attention to the vote percentages each party gets.

If the NDP wins by dividing the right, then there will likely be renewed calls for the Wildrose and PCs to unite.

"That is going to put greater impetus on some sort of merger/co-operation between the two [opposition] parties," said Bratt.