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Updated: Mon, 30 Jun 2014 22:22:56 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Ontario, Alberta byelections test appetite for change

Voters in four federal ridings cast ballots today in byelection races in rural Alberta and the City of Toronto. CBC

Voters in four federal ridings cast ballots today in byelection races in rural Alberta and the City of Toronto. CBC

The Liberals will hold on to the Toronto-area riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, while Conservative candidate John Barlow will be elected in Alberta tonight, CBC News projects, as results continue to trickle in for two other byelections being held in Alberta and Ontario.

The Liberals ran Arnold Chan, a former lawyer and corporate manager, in the densely Chinese-populated Scarborough-Agincourt riding.

Pundits say the four byelections — two in Ontario, two in Alberta — will gauge whether Liberals or New Democrats stand the best chance of becoming a viable alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 2015.

Although the two Alberta ridings of Fort McMurray-Athabasca and Macleod were perceived as virtual locks for the Conservatives, political strategists will be looking closely at vote percentages to judge how much momentum the Liberals may be gaining.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has campaigned three times in the oilsands heartland to back Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. A dramatic increase in Liberal support could be an indication of voter dissatisfaction with the Conservatives.

It would also help the Liberals sell the idea that they are a reinvigorated party under Trudeau's stewardship. Public opinion surveys show more Canadians giving popular support to the Liberals than the Conservatives, followed by the New Democrats in third place.

The Conservatives won by healthy margins in Alberta in 2011, capturing 72 per cent in Fort McMurray-Athabasca and 77 per cent in Macleod. But pollster Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research, said a drop in support by as much as 20 points in these byelections would spell trouble.

"It would suggest a significant proportion are not happy and want to send a message to Harper," Nanos told CBC's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton. If the ballot results don't show a significant vote split, Nanos added, "the Conservatives have to be nervous."

Hot race is Trinity-Spadina in Toronto

The contest to watch will be the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, a former NDP stronghold that was vacated earlier this year by Olivia Chow, who is now running for mayor of the city.

Trinity-Spadina will be a predominantly two-way race, and the candidates are expected to go neck and neck.

New Democrat candidate Joe Cressy, a former strategist for Chow and the son of a former Toronto city councillor, is vying to preserve for the NDP the ethnically vibrant electoral district. He faces serious competition from Liberal candidate Adam Vaughan, who boasts name recognition locally and gave up his Toronto city council seat this year in order to make his bid for a move to Ottawa.

Since 1972, every time the Liberals won Trinity-Spadina they have gone on to form government; every time the NDP took the riding, the Conservatives have taken power.

Things were looking more certain in Scarborough-Agincourt. The riding has been a Liberal bastion for 25 years under Jim Karygiannis's representation,and it will continue to be so with Chan.

The former MP resigned from federal politics in April to run for a city council ward in Toronto, and Trudeau has since toured the area to champion Chan's candidacy. Karygiannis has also said he has endorsed Chan, though his own preference for a successor lost the nomination.

Voter turnout for the four federal byelections was expected to be low, coming between a weekend and the Canada Day holiday. Some political observers accused the Harper Conservatives of choosing this date to hold byelections in order to engineer a low voter turnout.

Barry Kay, a political science professor with Wilfrid Laurier University, said turnout in byelections is typically 10 to 15 points lower than the turnout in a general election. He said that governing parties tend to suffer more losses in byelections as voters use the occasion to show their dismay at the polls without having to worry about changing the seat of power.

CBCNews.ca will have full coverage of the byelection results after polls close at 9:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. MT).

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