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In Manitoba race, odds could tip in Greg Selinger's favour

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger delivers his annual state of the province speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in Winnipeg, Tuesday, December 14, 2010.


On October 4, Greg Selinger will be asking Manitobans to hand his New Democratic government its fourth mandate in his first election campaign as leader. Until recently, it appeared that the days of Mr. Selinger's tenure as premier were numbered, but newfound popularity could extend the life of Manitoba's longest running government since the 1950s.

Since the defeat of the last Liberal government in 1958, the province has been governed by either the Progressive Conservatives or the New Democrats. This government, first elected in 1999 under then leader Gary Doer, is the third incarnation of NDP rule in Manitoba's history.

Politics in Manitoba generally split along rural and urban lines, with the Tories dominating the former and the NDP the latter. A north-south split also exists, as the Manitoba NDP has held the northern part of the province with little interruption since 1969, while the Progressive Conservatives have been strongest in the south.

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The New Democrats have historically been the party of choice in Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital and home to over half of the 57 seats in the provincial legislature. The party is especially dominant in the downtown core and northern parts of the city. Outside of Winnipeg, the NDP does best in the northern half of the province, stretching down as far south as the capital. Isolated victories in the southern portion of the province are not unheard of, and the party currently holds a handful of seats in the area.

Mr. Selinger has been the leader of the party since October 2009. Before him, Gary Doer - now the Canadian ambassador to the United States - led the party from 1988, winning the last three elections as leader. Mr. Selinger was the Minister of Finance in Mr. Doer's cabinet, and if he is not re-elected this fall he will be the first NDP leader not to win an election since the 1960s.

The PCs, who formed the previous government between 1988 and 1999, have their heartland in the southern rural parts of Manitoba. The party has not often ventured much further north than Lake Winnipeg in recent history, while in the capital the Tories have historically been strongest in the southern and southwestern neighbourhoods. The PCs are also competitive in Brandon, Manitoba's second city, but have not captured both seats in the city since the riding of Brandon was split in two more than 40 years ago.

Hugh McFadyen has led the party since April 2006, taking over from former leader Stuart Murray. Though Mr. McFadyen has already led the party through one election and is no stranger to Manitoba politics, having worked with the party since the 1990s and with Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, he has less experience in elected provincial politics than his opponents. He first entered the legislature after winning a by-election in December 2005 while both Mr. Selinger and Jon Gerrard, leader of the Liberal Party, were first elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1999.

The Liberals are the third party of Manitoba politics, and have not been a major factor outside of Winnipeg for over three decades. The party has been limited to only a few seats, all in the city, since the 1970s with the exception of the 1988 and 1990 elections, in which the Liberals won a large swathe of seats in the provincial capital. They are now limited to Winnipeg almost entirely, and even then only to a few select neighbourhoods of the city.

The New Democrats have picked up seats in each of the last five elections, and have gone from 32 seats in 1999 to 36 in 2007. These came at the expense of the Tories, who were reduced from 31 seats in 1995 to 24 in 1999 and eventually to only 19 seats in 2007. The Liberals have been limited to one or two seats and no more than 13 per cent of the vote since 1999.

The 2007 election had few surprises, as the number of votes cast in favour of each party hardly differed from 2003 and only three seats changed hands.

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Though the NDP bettered the Tories by 10 points, 48 per cent to 38 per cent province wide, the race was closer outside of Winnipeg. There, the PCs took 49 per cent of the vote and 15 seats, with 42 per cent and 11 seats going to the New Democrats. More precisely, the New Democrats swept the north with 66 per cent support while the Tories took the south with 57 per cent. The central part of the province split between the two parties, with 47 per cent voting for the Tories and 46 per cent for the New Democrats.

In Winnipeg, the NDP took over half of the vote and four-fifths of the seats, being strongest in the eastern (60 per cent) and northern (58 per cent) parts of the city. They also won half or more of the votes in the central and southern portions, with the western section of Winnipeg being slightly more competitive: 46 per cent for the NDP and 41 per cent for the Tories. Though the Liberals won two seats in the city, they did not do better than 26 per cent in any part of Winnipeg and were really only competitive in one other riding.

Two of the three seats that changed hands were in Winnipeg at opposite ends of the city. In both cases, the New Democrats overcame margins of about 15 points to steal the seats away from the Tories.

The other seat that was flipped was Brandon West, which went from an NDP landslide to a close PC victory. Brandon East was held by the New Democrats, but the margin was narrowed from 2003.

The two main parties have been running neck-and-neck in the polls since 2007, with the NDP holding the upper hand until early 2010. Since then the Tories have been leading, though in several polls the margin between the two has been statistically insignificant. The Liberals, meanwhile, have been holding steady between 10 and 15 per cent since the last election, while the provincial Greens have been at five per cent or lower. Unless they run a full slate of candidates, they are unlikely to take anything close to that number of votes. They had less than two per cent in 2007.

The most recent poll from Probe Research, conducted throughout June, put the Tories and the NDP at 44 per cent apiece. That is good news for the NDP, which has been struggling to keep up with the PCs since Mr. Doer's departure. A close result also plays in the NDP's favour, as their vote is more efficient and the party stands a chance of winning another majority even with fewer votes than the Tories.

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Since the 2007 election, the boundaries of Manitoba's 57 ridings have been changed. Some have been shifted very little, while others have been completely transformed. In some cases this will make it difficult for incumbent MLAs to be re-elected as their new constituents might not have voted for them the last time around.

The NDP's enclaves in rural southern Manitoba could be up for grabs if the race continues to be close, while the Tories will need to return to southern Winnipeg in order to have a shot at forming government.

Twelve years is a long time for a government to have power. But the mood in Manitoba might be a little upbeat. The Winnipeg Jets' home-opener against the Montreal Canadiens takes place the Sunday after the election, and Mr. Selinger's numbers have improved with his handling of the flooding in the province.

Manitoba's election is setting up to be the closest of the five provincial contests scheduled for the fall. It will be Mr. Selinger's first shot to win an election as party leader, and with little more than two months to go before the vote the odds are starting to tilt in his favour.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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