Ten ridings to watch: Apathy and the mysterious incumbent of Calgary East

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Election 2011: rabble.ca has chosen 10 key ridings across Canada for progressives to watch in the run-up to the May 2 vote, and asked local writers to assess them. The profiles highlight why the riding profiled is important and issues local campaigns are focused upon.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai once declared to a room full of journalism students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) that no election is ever foretold. Participating in a town hall forum focused on combating voter apathy, Obhrai was one of 16 local candidates from across the political spectrum urging young voters to help shape the future of their country by casting a ballot in the upcoming federal election.

"Government is part of life whether we like it or not," Obhrai explained. "It's important to exercise the right to vote to hold leaders accountable."

The following year, Obhrai was elected to the newly established riding of Calgary East, where he has been continually re-elected ever since.

Initially elected as a member of the Reform Party, Obhrai vowed to advocate for Calgarians whose voices, he claimed, were going unheard in Ottawa. He echoed this mantra after being re-elected as a member of the Canadian Alliance, and finally as an elected representative of the Conservative Party.

However, a strange thing happened when, in 2006, fellow Calgary Conservative Stephen Harper became the prime minister of Canada: Now that the West had finally 'gotten in,' Obrhai abandoned the notion that the concerns of his constituents were going unheeded by the powers that be.

So much so, in fact, that outside fund raising events such as the requisite Calgary Stampede feast of Flapjacks, you'd be hard pressed to find a constituent who'd seen, or heard from, Obhrai for the better part of a decade.

Calgarians who reached out to Obhhrai with their concerns had their pleas routinely ignored; their elected MP too busy, it seems, to address the issues of those who elected him -- or even acknowledge having received their correspondences.

For an MP who's enjoyed effortless electoral victory for 14 years -- dwarfing his competitors in both monies raised and votes garnered -- Obhrai certainly has little regard for Calgary East voters. In stark contrast to his 1996 address to SAIT students, Obhrai now acts as if he is beyond public accountability; that he is, indeed, entitled to the seat he currently holds.

Throughout this election campaign, Obhrai has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the media; turning down requests for interviews, opting instead to feign interaction through twitter. His one sided conversations consist on random status updates, most of which are attacks on his Liberal opponent, labeling the distinguished, born-and-raised Calgarian as a "visitor from Toronto"; refusing even to call her by name -- Josipa Petrunic.

(Other notables vying for Calgary East include candidates Al Brown and Scott Milton, who represent the New Democratic Party and Green Party, respectively; Obrhai has yet to acknowledge their existence.)

Obhrai flatly rejects the notion of participating in all-candidate debates; refusing to partake in town halls or similar events that require face-to-face interaction with either his opponents, or his constituents.

With the many contentious issues residents of Calgary East currently face, most notably the will-it-or-wont-it-be-built airport tunnel, many non-political members of the constituency are becoming engaged. They're searching for a candidate whom they feel will represent them in Ottawa.

While the diverse crop of qualified, dedicated individuals vying for the riding provides Calgary East voters with truly viable alternatives to Obhrai, ousting the Tory incumbent will not be an easy task. In the last election, Obhrai garnered more than 66 per cent of the popular vote; that's more votes than his four opponents combined.

It will take a massive, well orchestrated 'get out the vote' campaign, combined with a plan for strategic voting, in order to challenge Obhrai's firm hold on the riding. A difficult task at the best of times, one can't help but wonder if it's at all possible the long-time Conservative, notoriously apathetic riding.

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