NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's political career may be on the line in Burnaby South

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      At the recent Korean Cultural Heritage Festival at Swangard Stadium, only one federal party had a booth to greet attendees.

      It wasn't the NDP, which won the seat by fewer than 600 votes in 2015.

      Rather, it was the Liberal Party of Canada. Party volunteers wore red T-shirts with the name "Adam Pankratz" on their backs.

      Swangard Stadium is on the western edge of the federal riding of Burnaby South.

      Pankratz, an adjunct professor in the UBC Sauder School of Business, very nearly pulled off a stunning upset in this formerly safe NDP area in the last campaign.

      He won more than 100 polls in the riding on election day, when his vote total easily eclipsed the NDP's Kennedy Stewart by nearly 1,000 votes.

      But Stewart emerged as the winner thanks to the advance polls. The New Democrat's margin of 1,303 votes cast before election day (and before the Justin Trudeau campaign peaked) enabled him to return to Parliament.

      Stewart has since resigned his seat to run for mayor of Vancouver.

      Media outlets are reporting that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will announce this week that he will run an an upcoming by-election to fill the vacant seat in Burnaby South.

      Singh is hoping that his opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline will resonate in the diverse riding.

      According to the 2016 census, Burnaby South includes 19,670 Mandarin speakers, another 13,375 Cantonese speakers, 3,915 Tagalog speakers, 3,500 Korean speakers, and 2,375 Punjabi speakers.

      Justin Trudeau's recent appearance at the Richmond Night Market wasn't only targeted at voters in Richmond. It was a message to first-generation Chinese immigrants, including those in Burnaby South, that he cares about them.

      Burnaby South includes Metrotown, which is home to a growing number of first-generation Chinese Canadians.

      Municipal election complicates situation

      Ordinarily, the NDP machine in Burnaby would come out in force to support Singh's candidacy. But these are not ordinary times for New Democrats in Burnaby.

      Their civic wing, the Burnaby Citizens' Association, could be in its toughest election fight since Derek Corrigan became mayor in 2002. And it's going to want to have all hands on deck—and as many donations as possible—for the civic campaign.

      That's why nobody should be surprised if Trudeau ensures that the by-election campaign crosses over with the municipal election.

      Moreover, some of Stewart's volunteers who worked so hard to get out the advance vote might not be so keen to roll up their sleeves this time after seeing their MP abandon the city.

      Perhaps most worrisome for Singh is the possibility that South Burnaby residents may not be as worked up about the Kinder Morgan pipeline as they were two or three years ago.

      If they're more concerned about pocketbook issues and don't like the thought of their riding being used by an Ontario interloper as his political lily pad, they might make this known on by-election day.

      The NDP constitution requires a secret ballot at conventions to determine whether a leadership election should be called. Fortunately for Singh, the next one doesn't have to be held until two years after the one last February.

      However, special conventions can be called if "requested by a majority of Electoral District Associations in a majority of provinces and territories".

      This is the biggest risk facing Singh. If he loses a by-election in Burnaby South, it's going to be hard for his party to raise money going into the next federal election.

      Some MPs may want him bounced in favour of a caucus candidate, say Charlie Angus or Nathan Cullen, who might offer a better chance against the Trudeau juggernaut.

      Since Singh became leader in October 2017, the NDP has already lost seven straight by-elections. It's lost 13 in a row since the last federal election.

      Singh must win Burnaby South if he's to have any chance of being taken seriously in the next federal election, which will take place in 2019.

      Liberal candidate Adam Pankratz came within a few hundred votes of winning Burnaby South in 2015.
      Adam Pankratz

      Liberals will try to marginalize Singh

      As things stand now, the Liberals can portray the next general election as a two-party fight between them and the right-wing Conservatives under Andrew Scheer.

      Scheer was elected party leader with the help of the anti-abortion movement, which Trudeau's party will drive home at every opportunity.

      The Liberals' goal will be to pry as many votes as possible from the NDP and to make women worry that Scheer will take away their reproductive rights.

      Throw in some messaging about Trudeau being the only leader who will stand up to Donald Trump, and Scheer could be crushed.

      This type of polarizing campaign has the potential to make Singh an also-ran.

      But if Singh wins a by-election in Burnaby South, he'll be in a much better position to claim legitimacy in the general election.

      He can participate in leaders' debates as a member of Parliament. He'll be in a better position to raise money for his party. And he can chip away at Trudeau's claims of being progressive by repeatedly highlighting the prime minister's failure to take serious action on climate change, address racial profiling by police and security agencies, or tackle the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

      The future of the federal NDP could be played out in Burnaby South later this year.

      That's what makes this different from all the other by-elections that have taken place since Singh became NDP leader.