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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Liberals won three seats in Parliament in special elections on Monday, helping relieve the pressure on embattled leader Stephane Dion.
Preliminary results showed the party captured three of the four ridings (Parliamentary constituencies) left vacant by Liberal legislators who had quit after the January 2006 federal election, which was won by the Conservatives.
The three ridings were safe Liberals seats. The fourth -- which the Liberals unexpectedly took from the Conservatives in 2006 by a few dozen votes -- returned to the Conservatives.
Dion, a French-speaking former academic with an imperfect grasp of English, captured the leadership of the Liberals in December 2006 but is struggling to unite members behind him.
He has ordered his party to back the minority Conservative government on several confidence votes over the last year on the grounds that Canadians do not want an election now.
This supportive stance is angering some members who say an opposition party should try to defeat the government. Dion gave no hint on Monday night whether he would now try to bring down Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Canadians know that where I want my country to go is toward a richer Canada, a fairer Canada, a greener Canada," he told supporters in Toronto.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, noting that governing parties tend to do poorly in special elections, told Reuters the results were "a dramatic setback for the Liberals."
A string of recent federal opinion polls show the two parties are virtually tied, with neither guaranteed to win power if an election were held today.
The Conservatives now have 127 of the 308 seats in the federal Parliament with the Liberals on 97.
Such is the unhappiness and disorganization inside the Liberals that some political observers had suggested the party would only win two of the four seats, spelling yet more negative headlines for Dion.
In the end, such pessimism proved unfounded. High-profile Liberals brushed aside the Conservatives in two ridings in Toronto, where the party has dominated for many decades.
The Liberals also won a riding in Vancouver, albeit it by a much smaller margin than in 2006, but lost the race held in the central province of Saskatchewan.
Editing by Doina Chiacu