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Harper To Call Four Byelections He Doesn't Expect To Win: Source

Stephen Harper addresses a press briefing at the end of the G20 Summit on September 25, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Harper government will announce four byelections on Sunday, a signal the Tories expect to survive Liberal attempts to topple them this fall and hold out hope for adding to their total.

A party source said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to make the announcement Sunday to fill four vacancies in the House of Commons.

One official played down the prospects of the Conservatives adding to their 143 members in the 308-seat House, noting that byelections are a traditionally a time for voters to register their disapproval.

But pollster Nik Nanos said the Tory modesty is smart politics and somewhat disingenuous.

He agreed that the Bloc Quebecois have a lock on the two Quebec ridings up for grab – in Montreal and in the eastern Quebec region of Riviere-du-Loup – where the nationalist party candidates won well over half the votes in 2008.

But the Nova Scotia riding held by independent Bill Casey, a former Conservative MP who had a falling out with Harper, could be in play, he said, now that the popular Casey has vacated the scene.

“You take (Casey) out of the equation, ridings usually revert to their normal pattern, so if they can field a strong candidate, they have a shot,” he said.

The New Westminster, B.C. seat held by Dawn Black, who left for provincial politics, is also winnable for the Tories, he said. The well-liked Black won the riding by just over 1,000 votes last October and the Tories held the riding as recently as 2004.

Nanos said the Harper Conservatives are riding an upward momentum at the moment, with several polls showing them about six points ahead of the Liberals and starting to approach the 40-per-cent level believed needed for a majority.

“I don’t see a downside for them calling the byelections now. Every seat they win gets them one step closer to majority territory,” he said.

The Conservative official, who spoke on background, gave no date for the votes but given the minimum 36-day campaigning period, the earliest they could be held is Nov. 9.

Calling the byelections for this fall suggests Harper believes the likelihood his government will be defeated in the next few months are now remote, despite the Liberal pledge to vote against the Conservatives at every opportunity.

The NDP has said it would keep the government from falling until amendments to expand employment insurance coverage are passed.

Many analysts believe the most likely scenario leading to a fall general election is for Harper to engineer his own defeat in an opportunistic attempt to take advantage of Liberal disarray.

Ignatieff is facing growing disenchantment with his leadership, including the recent open revolt by Montreal MP Dennis Coderre, who last Monday quit as the party’s Quebec lieutenant in a public rebuke of Ignatieff’s dependence on Toronto aides.

The Conservative official called such speculation “ridiculous.”

“In a minority government, the threat of a general election is always there, but we are interested in governing,” he said. “We are not interested in trying to engineer our own defeat.”