OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's governing Conservatives will have difficulty capturing a majority of seats in the House of Commons in the next election despite scoring a significant political win over their rivals in a by-election this week.
The Conservatives won power in early 2006 and since then have governed with a parliamentary minority, forcing them to dilute their policies and do deals with opposition parties to survive confidence motions.
The party, which enjoys greatest support in the West and in rural areas, needs to break into Canada's three big vote-rich cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver -- to win a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
The party took a step in the right direction on Monday when it won a by-election in Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto, which had been held by the main opposition Liberal Party for 22 years.
Yet Toronto itself remains a Liberal stronghold and there are big obstacles for the Conservatives in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, another obvious hunting ground for more seats.
The separatist Bloc Quebec has 47 of Quebec's 75 federal seats and its hold looks impervious, for the time being at least.
"With the Bloc Quebecois soaking up so much support in the province, what happens is that it leaves virtually no room for either the federal Liberals or the Conservatives to get a majority," said pollster John Wright of Ipsos Reid.
Many political observers expect the next election to be in the first half of next year. Polls indicate the Conservatives will lose some of the 11 Quebec seats they hold, which means they need to look elsewhere in search of a majority.
The main battleground is the powerful central province of Ontario, which has 106 seats, many of them in, and around, Toronto.
The Conservatives spent plenty of time and money in the battle for Vaughan, where former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino ran for the party against a low-profile Liberal.
"We see enormous growth in Vaughan which we believe bodes well for our general electoral chances in the broader Greater Toronto area," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
"This is a time of reckoning for (Liberal Party leader Michael) Ignatieff," he told reporters on Tuesday.
Yet despite the firepower deployed, and predictions of a Conservative blowout, Fantino won by 49.1 percent of the vote to 46.6 percent for the Liberals. The win gives the party 51 of Ontario's 106 seats.
"It's an important victory for the Conservatives, both in terms of the candidate and for breaking a 22-year rule and for giving a boost to its sense of momentum," Wright said.
"(But) it is tenuous ... it's not a harbinger of taking Ontario. It is what it is -- it's a by-election."
Turnout in Vaughan was 32.4 percent, compared with 52 percent in the October 2008 federal election.
Ignatieff, who has had trouble attracting voter support since he took over the Liberals in December 2008, said he was confident the party can win Vaughan back.
"The gates (to Toronto) are not open. You should never underestimate the strength, discipline and tenacity of the Liberal Party," he told reporters.
Ignatieff can also take heart from an unexpected Liberal win in the western province of Manitoba, where the party easily beat the left-leaning New Democrats in the constituency of Winnipeg North, which had been a NDP stronghold.
The win was significant, since the New Democrats and Liberals compete for the same center-left segment of the electorate -- a split that helps the Conservatives.
Interestingly, the New Democrat vote in Vaughan collapsed to 1.7 percent from 9.6 percent in October 2008.
"At the next election we'll have two alternatives: Liberal or Conservative ... that's the crucial importance of yesterday's votes," Ignatieff said.
The New Democrats dismissed the comments, noting the Liberals had run a very experienced candidate in Winnipeg.
Eric Grenier of the threehundredeight.com website, which closely tracks political polls, said the results in Vaughan and Winnipeg North showed the Liberals were in a good position.
"They are able to compete against the Conservatives when they shouldn't be able to, and are able to beat the New Democrats if they put an effort into it," he wrote. "These results have them poised to give the Conservatives battle in Ontario and steal a few seats from the New Democrats."
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway