BRAMPTON, Ontario (Reuters) - The Toronto region is where the 2011 federal election will probably be decided as the Conservatives hunt for the extra seats they need to turn their minority government into a safe majority one.
In the city of Toronto, which has a reputation for being a fortress for the opposition Liberals, the Conservatives have the aging populations of affluent electoral districts in their sights, with a special nod to Jewish voters who like the government’s pro-Israel stance.
And in the suburbs, where visible minorities now make up a rising share of voters, they are targeting the ethnic vote.
“Their objective is to position themselves as the natural governing party for the 21st century in Canada,” said Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor of politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“That clearly means making inroads with those population groups that are growing rapidly.”
The Conservatives, in power since 2006, are using their record on the economy and family-centric “traditional values” to appeal to voters in the suburbs of Canada’s largest city, home to 10 of the tightest races for the May 2 election.
Three of the hottest ridings, or electoral districts, are in Brampton, just northwest of Toronto, where half the residents are immigrants, and one in three is from South Asia. Buoyed by an immigrant vote that has traditionally backed them, the Liberals won here in the last election, but only just.
Now, the immigrant vote isn’t necessarily Liberal.
Brampton’s population has risen more than four-fold since the 1970s, transforming a once picturesque town into a suburban sprawl of townhouses and strip malls. Sikh men in turbans chat on street corners, while children play road hockey in front of cookie-cutter homes.
“Brampton is a microcosm about how this country has changed,” Leuprecht said. “If you can make inroads in this sort of a riding, I think you’re also sending a signal that you’re keeping up with the times.”
The province of Ontario, of which Toronto is capital, has a third of the seats in Parliament. That makes it the key electoral battleground for the Conservatives, who are targeting voters in traditional Liberal strongholds, while defending their position against the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which has soared in the polls in the last two weeks of the campaign.
The Conservatives hold 143 seats in Parliament and need 12 more for a majority. They won minority governments in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
“They realized that if they focused on these ridings and work hard, they can win it,” said Rajinder Saini, a Punjabi-language radio host and an influential voice within that community. “If they go to Conservatives, I will not be surprised.”
The party may also have an opportunity to break the strong Liberal position within Toronto itself, notably in the diverse riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, where the population has Jewish, Italian and Filipino roots.
Here, the Conservatives are benefiting from their clear message as a defender of Israel and the threat of another near-term election if no party wins an outright majority in this one.
In the last election, Conservative candidate Joe Oliver narrowed the gap against the Liberal incumbent -- who has held the seat since 1988 -- from 23 percent to 4.7 percent.
“Now, it’s closer,” Oliver told Reuters. “This still remains an uphill fight but the messages that we’re talking about are resonating.”
But Tariq Amin-Khan, an associate professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that the Conservative strategy of targeting voters based on race or ethnic origin could backfire.
“This targeting of the ethnic vote has really angered quite a few people within the broader South Asian community who see themselves as people who are just being exploited to gain votes,” he said.
Amin-Khan said a well-publicized gaffe in which a Conservative campaign worker asked community members to wear “ethnic costumes” for a photo opportunity with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the accidental release of documents that characterized certain ridings as “very ethnic”, may have hurt the Conservatives with some voters.
“They would like their voices heard, and they would also not like to be treated as ethnics,” said Amin-Khan. “In other words they want to be part of the Canadian mosaic.”
Reporting by Julie Gordon and Claire Sibonney; editing by Janet Guttsman and Peter Galloway