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Still anyone's race

As Vancouver voters prepare to elect a new mayor and council on Saturday, observers say it could still be anyone's game.

The campaign has been marked by a crowded race of new candidates and parties with converging platforms focused on fixing the city's housing affordability crisis.

"I wouldn't want to be on the record predicting this election," said Sanjay Jeram, senior lecturer of political science at Simon Fraser University.

Kennedy Stewart, a former New Democrat MP, is seen as one of the leading candidates for the mayor's seat in Vancouver. He is running as an independent in a field of 21 candidates that includes the Non-Partisan Association's Ken Sim, independent Shauna Sylvester, YES Vancouver's Hector Bremner and Coalition Vancouver's Wai Young. Incumbent Gregor Robertson isn't seeking re-election.

Jeram warned it's hard to accurately gauge public opinion for municipal elections.

"We just don't have as much data and there's less stability in municipal elections generally," he said, adding that the rupture of the party system in Vancouver has added another wild card factor to the race.

"Moreover, with so many candidates and the margins so slim, therefore it becomes even harder to predict. I would say there's four maybe five candidates who have a legit shot."

The left vote may be split between Stewart and Sylvester, while the right could be split between Sim, Bremner and Young, he said.

The city is somewhat unusual in Canada because it operates under a party system.

Since 2008, centre-left Vision Vancouver has dominated council under Robertson but the party isn't running a candidate for mayor in this election.

The centre-right Non-Partisan Association or NPA had a long-running grip on power before that, with some notable exceptions, including 2002 when the Coalition of Progressive Electors won the mayor's office and eight of 10 council seats.

Vancouver is not the only city in the province where the race for mayor is being closely watched.

Leonard Krog, an NDP member of the legislature, is running for mayor in Nanaimo, and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is facing nine challengers. Surrey will also get a new mayor as Linda Hepner isn't running again.

Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said the housing crisis has been the major issue of the campaign in Vancouver. And while there's variation in the candidates' promised solutions, almost all of them are focused on increasing supply.

Stewart is promising to build 25,000 new non-profit affordable rental homes and 35,000 new condos, coach houses and townhouses over the next decade. Sim wants to immediately allow two secondary suites in each detached home. And Sylvester says she'll use city land for housing and support services, allow medium-density rezoning and fast track the permitting process for homeowners creating affordable housing on their lots.

"It's interesting because all the platforms have almost seemingly converged on the issue of affordable housing. I think that reflects an angst the city has merged into when we think about life in the city of Vancouver for both renters and homeowners," Yan said.

He said that's true for candidates across the spectrum, as they appeal to voters ranging from young families who still want to buy their first home to seniors with skyrocketing property values whose kids and grandchildren can't afford to live nearby.

Even if they have a direct relationship with affordability, other issues like economic development and transportation have received less attention, he said.

Whoever wins the mayoral race will likely face a challenge delivering those promises.

It's possible that a party like the NPA, which has the most candidates in the race for council at eight, could win the mayor's seat and a majority at city hall. But observers say more likely is a scenario where the next mayor will be leading a fractured council representing multiple parties and independents.

"The mayor at best has a bit of a bully pulpit, some appointing capacity and a really nice chain that he or she can wear. Beyond that, he or she is one of only 11 votes," Yan said.



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