VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is so out of favor with some voters that they say they are prepared to back a political party they don’t usually support just to unseat him in the Oct. 19 general election.
A number of groups have been formed to encourage Canadians to vote strategically by taking a “Anyone But Conservative” or “Anyone But Harper” stance.
That would mean backers of the two left-of-center parties, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, voting for whichever of their candidates is the biggest challenger to the Conservative rival in a particular seat. It can also mean backers of smaller parties, such as the Greens, switching their vote to a Liberal or NDP candidate.
The three main parties have been neck-and-neck in the polls with about 30 percent support each. Even with Canada’s first-past-the-post system, no party looks set to win a majority of seats. With a minority government likely, strategic voting has the potential to change the outcome.
Strategic voting campaigns are not new in Canada, but this time around the groups involved say they are better organized.
They include Leadnow, a non-profit group funded through individual donations, which is doing polling in closely fought districts, or swing seats. It has enlisted some 2,000 volunteers to recruit voters who will back candidates with the best chance of beating the Conservatives.
The group, which organizers stress is not affiliated with the Liberals or NDP, said interest has been so strong it has been able to nearly triple the focus of its 'Vote Together' campaign to 31 ridings, as electoral districts are known in Canada, up from 13 in August. It said 68,046 people so far have pledged to vote strategically.
The group has not set a target but hopes to recruit as many voters as possible, and noted more than 3,700 people have signed up in the newly created riding of Vancouver Granville, where the three-way race is tight.
While past strategic voting campaigns have been primarily online-based, Leadnow is favoring old-fashioned outreach work like phone calls and door knocking.
"It's the first time that anyone has done anything of this scale, with this kind of (polling) information and with this kind of volunteer capacity to get out the vote," said Amara Possian, Leadnow's national campaign manager.
Another grassroots effort is strategicvoting.ca, a website set up by Alberta-based information technology manager Hisham Abdel-Rahman that identifies more than 100 districts where he believes strategic voting could change the outcome.
He said he's had 12,000 unique visitors to the site in one day and thinks that will increase as voting day approaches.
"In a lot of ridings, I think people think there is no way a progressive candidate can win, so they don’t vote,” he said. “But I'm hoping that if enough people go out, surprises can happen."
Conservative Party spokesman Kory Teneycke downplayed the potential impact of strategic voting, suggesting those behind the campaigns were niche activists, unrepresentative of the broader public.
"There are some people who will never vote for this government and this party, and that's fine. This is a democracy, people can make these choices," he said. "Do I think there is a deep concern? No."
The strategic voting campaign is especially strong in the last-to-the-polls western provinces, particularly British Columbia, where for the first time results from populous Ontario and Quebec will be broadcast before the local polls close. This will allow late voters to see where the momentum is before casting their ballots.
Harper, who is disliked by many left-leaning voters for his tax-cutting, small-government agenda, as well as social policies like tougher jail sentences, is seeking a rare fourth term.
Restaurant manager Saleem Carr said a desire to oust Harper has turned him into a strategic voter. The 25-year-old plans to vote for the NDP in Kamloops, British Columbia, a longtime Conservative stronghold where the incumbent is now in a tight race.
"My core values sit more with the Green Party, but they will never get in government," said Carr, who recently stood outside a Conservative campaign event holding a sign that read: 'Don't be a Harpercrite! Vote A-B-C (Anyone but Conservative).'
British Columbia will have a greater influence in the coming election after gaining six of 30 new districts in a national redistribution that brought the number of House of Commons seats to 338. Metro Vancouver, where results in many of its 23 districts are expected to be close, could end up being a "kingmaker".
"British Columbians are probably going to be in a position to decide the outcome of this election," Harper told reporters at an event last month.
Strategic voting has had little effect in past elections, partly because voters need consistent "signals" on who they should back for it to work, experts say.
"In the past, when there hasn't been such signaling, people have tended to follow the trends in national polls," said Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.
On the ground in hotly contested ridings, some candidates said they appreciated efforts to rally voters, but don't necessarily expect their communities to think strategically at the ballot box.
"My experience at the door is people don't seem to want to be told how to vote," said Mira Oreck, an NDP candidate fighting a tight race against Conservative rival Erinn Broshko and Liberal Jody Wilson-Raybould in a Vancouver riding targeted by Leadnow.
Others think it could have an influence.
"Strategic voting will play a little more (of a role) in some of the ridings where the Conservatives may be in trouble," said Mario Canseco, a vice president with polling firm Insights West.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Martin Howell