THE next provincial election is supposedly not until May 2013, but we will have two critical byelections before then - and there could be more.
Two B.C. Liberal MLAs have quit (or have served notice of quitting) and that means a byelection must be held within six months of them giving up their seats. The Port Moody-Coquitlam seat left vacant by Iain Black must be filled by next April, while the Chilliwack-Hope riding that Barry Penner will give up early in the New Year likely has to be filled by sometime in June.
But Premier Christy Clark has indicated she may hold both byelections at the same time, which may make things more interesting. And here's another intriguing element that may arise: Will more B.C. Liberal MLAs decide to quit early, thus creating a scenario for three or even four byelections to occur at once?
Clark has said she is looking for "renewal" of her political party, as it desperately tries to rebrand itself in ways that provide distance from former premier Gordon Campbell.
She equates that renewal with old faces leaving and new ones coming on board, so she appears not to be particularly upset that Black and Penner have left.
Will she pressure other sitting MLAs who may not run again into leaving sometime next spring - in March or April I would think - to allow for the chance for some new blood to be injected early? The MLAs would have to be located in so-called "safe" Liberal seats (assuming there are any out there) to provide the best chance of hanging on to the riding.
That's one of the rumours making the rounds at the legislature. Ridings in West Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan are where the B.C. Liberals won by the widest margins in 2009, so keep an eye on whether any MLAs from those areas pull the plug.
Based on the last election results, and the current level of party support in opinion polls, it would appear the NDP has a pretty good shot at winning the Port Moody seat. Black won by more than 12 percentage points last time, or more than 2,300 votes over his NDP rival.
But the NDP has recruited former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini as its candidate this time, which should give the party's chances a big lift. Of course, Trasolini may bring with him some baggage - you don't serve a long time as mayor without making at least a few enemies - but his name recognition will go a long way.
The Chilliwack-Hope riding is a safer bet for the B.C. Liberals, at least on paper. Penner won there in 2009 by more than 20 percentage points, or more than 3,300 votes.
B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins has said he won't run in that riding's byelection, which doesn't exactly make him or his party look particularly confident.
The B.C. Conservatives grabbed more than seven per cent last time, so it would need to almost triple its vote in the byelection to allow the NDP to win through the back door.
If there are only two byelections and the NDP and the B.C. Liberals split the outcome, the result is not necessarily that terrible for Clark. Governments rarely win byelections anyways (her own byelection victory was the first by a government candidate in more than 20 years, after all).
However, if Clark can fashion a scenario that sees a couple of other safe B.C. Liberal seats open up and then follows that up with byelection wins in those ridings, that could provide the kind of momentum she desperately needs to beat back the B.C. Conservative vote.
Winning a couple of contests in West Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and/or the Okanagan would at least provide evidence that the B.C. Liberals' chances for victory in the next provincial election are not dead, and in fact are quite alive.
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On a personal note, it's with mixed feelings that I watch Penner leave the political scene. It's great news for his young family, of course, but Penner is one of the best-liked MLAs on either side of the house. A measure of his popularity was seen just after he announced in the legislative chamber that he would be resigning - NDP MLAs all lined up to shake his hand and wish him well.
Penner earned a reputation as a decent, hardworking MLA in his 15-year career. He shall be missed.
Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC.