VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan’s gamble to call a snap election during the COVID-19 pandemic paid off in an extraordinary fashion Saturday, as B.C. voters returned his New Democratic Party to office with a large majority and four years of unfettered control over the government.
The B.C. NDP increased its 41-seat minority into a 55-seat majority, according to preliminary results Saturday night, which did not include more than 500,000 mail-in ballots.
“B.C. has voted, and a majority has been called, but there are many many hundreds of thousands of votes yet to be counted,” Horgan said at a victory rally in Vancouver.
“While we wait for that final count to happen, I want to assure people that I’m going to keep the focus right where it belongs, on helping people get through this pandemic and making sure that they have the services that they need. All British Columbians can sleep safely knowing that we’re going to do everything we can to keep them safe, healthy and secure.”
It is the largest NDP victory in B.C. history.
Metro Vancouver voters surged to support the NDP, with an orange wave that held or picked up battleground ridings in North Vancouver, Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Maple Ridge, Surrey and Coquitlam.
The NDP was able to win long-held Liberal ridings, such as North Vancouver-Seymour (where Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite was widely criticized for sexist comments during the campaign) and Surrey-Cloverdale.
The NDP was also leading in Vancouver-False Creek on Saturday night, potentially throwing out the Liberal incumbent and former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan.
The NDP had a particularly strong show in the three Richmond ridings, leading in Richmond-South Centre and Richmond-Steveston on Saturday night while defeating incumbent Jas Johal in Richmond-Queensborough. Johal’s loss is notable because it removed a potential future Liberal leadership candidate from the legislature.
New Democrats pushed the B.C. Liberals out of much of Metro Vancouver, going so far as to shake Liberal strongholds in the Fraser Valley in which the NDP have never won, including two ridings each in Langley and Chilliwack. Longtime Liberal incumbent Mary Polak fell to defeat to the NDP’s Andrew Mercier in Langley.
Some riding results are likely too early to call and could change because more than 500,000 mail-in ballots — representing more than one-third of the electorate — won’t begin to be counted until Nov. 6.
However, those the NDP victory was large enough that any such changes won’t alter the overall NDP victory.
The NDP majority means Horgan now no longer needs to cooperate with the B.C. Greens to enact his agenda.
But voters rejected Horgan’s call to completely eliminate the Greens from the legislature, instead re-electing Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen on Vancouver Island, and stunning the Liberals by electing a Green candidate in West Vancouver-Sea to Sky.
Furstenau said the NDP might have won a majority, but voters trust her party on the environment and a clean vision for the province’s future.
“While they may have their majority, British Columbians have returned Green MLAs to hold government accountable,” she said during an election-night speech in Victoria.
“We will use our voices very effectively in the legislature and we will be able to hold this government to account, and we will work incredibly hard every day to make sure that we do so.”
The election results mean the once-dominant B.C. Liberal Party — which controlled the legislature for 16 years until it came one seat shy of a majority in 2017 — continued to lose significant ground among urbanites in Metro Vancouver and is now largely relegated to a power base of rural, Interior and northern ridings. The Liberals were on track Saturday night to lose 14 seats and were elected or leading in 29 seats on Saturday night.
The NDP victory validated Horgan’s decision to tear up his partnership with the Greens on Sept. 21, and plunge the province into a campaign one year early, even as COVID-19 case counts worsened.
New Democrat strategists expected Horgan to take a small hit from some angry voters, but calculated the NDP leader’s high approval rating, combined with voter satisfaction over his government’s handling of the pandemic crisis so far, would ultimately prove the deciding factors for British Columbians.
It was a high-risk, high-reward election gamble. And it worked.
“I’m sure he’s going to be very happy, but I think he’s got new challenges on his hands,” said Hamish Telford, a political-science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“He’s dispensed with the Greens, in that he won’t have to deal with them anymore. But he’s going to have to manage a larger caucus and … he will have recruited people to run who expected to be in cabinet. So there will be some disgruntled people from the get-go.”
Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson had trouble connecting with voters during the pandemic election, where crowds, door-knocking and canvassing were heavily restricted. He also found his leadership undermined by sexist and homophobic candidate comments by candidates, which he was slow to address.
Wilkinson did not concede a loss Saturday and said he will await the final count. “We owe it to every voter, no matter how they express their intention, to await the final results.”
Despite a platform that included eliminating the provincial sales tax for one year — which, at $7 billion, was the most expensive election promise in modern history — the Liberals appeared unable to break through voter preoccupation with pandemic safety and health care.
Top NDP strategists reported virtually nothing promised by any of the parties during the five-week campaign resonated with voters. That appeared to be backed up by more than one dozen public opinion polls over more than a month that consistently showed the NDP in majority government position, no matter the controversies, issues or debates.