March 16, 2008 / 1:18 AM / in 10 years

Eyes on Liberals in Canadian byelection votes

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Opposition leader Stephane Dion dismissed suggestions on Friday that his reluctance to bring down the minority Conservative government could hurt the Liberal Party in upcoming byelections.

<p>Canada's Liberal leader Stephane Dion (C) stands to vote to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan until 2011 in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 13, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

Voters in four federal electoral districts, or ridings, will go to the polls on Monday in the first byelections since Dion decided not to force a general election over the budget or Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan.

Dion has maintained that Canadians are not ready for a general election. The byelections, one in a wealthy area of Vancouver, two in Toronto and one in northern Saskatchewan, are to fill vacancies in the House of Commons.

“The voters of the four ridings have the pleasure of voting Liberal before the (general election),” Dion joked during a campaign stop in Vancouver.

Asked when he thought that general election would be held, Dion again quipped: “It won’t be before Monday.”

All four seats were held by Liberals, so the outcome of Monday’s votes will not change control in the House. The Conservative government currently holds 126 of the 308 seats and must rely on the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation.

Three of the seats up for grabs are considered relatively safe for the Liberals, though the party urged supporters on Friday to not be complacent.

“The last thing I want is for a Liberal to wake up on Tuesday saying I should have voted,” said deputy Liberal leader Leader Michael Ignatieff, who was campaigning in Vancouver with Dion.

The biggest question mark for both the Liberals and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives is in Saskatchewan, where the seat was narrowly won by the Liberals in an upset in 2006.

Dion has ruffled some feathers in the district by selecting a former provincial New Democratic Party lawmaker to represent the Liberals.

In the Toronto races, the Liberal candidates -- one of whom is former Ontario Premier Bob Rae -- were both rivals in December 2006 when Dion won the party leadership. He now hopes they win seats in Parliament as a show of party unity.

Dion was stung in three byelections in Quebec in September, when the smaller opposition New Democrats won a seat in a traditionally Liberal area.

The Conservatives also scored an upset by taking a seat held by the separatist Bloc Quebecois and, while losing to the Bloc in the third contest, still managed a stronger showing than the Liberals.

Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson

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