ALBERTA

Alberta Election Winds Down With Tories In A Dogfight

05/03/2015 10:00 EDT | Updated 05/03/2016 05:12 EDT
EDMONTON - Alberta voters deliver their verdict Tuesday in an election campaign born out of faith, now climaxing in fear.

It was supposed to be a 28-day victory lap for Premier Jim Prentice, who called the election a year earlier than mandated by law with 70 of the 87 legislature members in his Progressive Conservative tent.

But campaign polls have the Tories in a three-way dogfight, their four-decade dynasty threatened by the rival Wildrose on the right and the surging NDP to the left.

Political analysts say if Prentice wins majority government it will not be because of his campaign, but despite it.

"It really has become a campaign plagued by gaffes and process stories rather than vision and platform," says Bob Murray, vice president of research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Prentice called the election last month to gain a mandate on his proposed budget, which he called a paradigm-altering, 10-year blueprint to diversify revenue and lessen dependence on volatile oil royalties.

It hiked dozens of taxes and fees while freezing or cutting spending across government and running up a debt for infrastructure that will hit $30-billion by the end of the decade.

On campaign doorsteps the budget galvanized the Opposition Wildrose party and its new leader Brian Jean, who criticized Prentice for not cutting deep enough while hiking taxes.

And it galvanized the NDP party and Leader Rachel Notley, who criticized Prentice for cutting too deep while hiking taxes.

"It was a budget that had something for everybody to hate," says Lori Williams, a policy studies professor with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"Even though it has some very good elements and was good for working families, I think the number of increases in fees and the cuts made it a pretty unpopular budget."

Prentice has also had to deal with scandals, setbacks and rollbacks.

He promised to stay the course on the budget only to announce two major changes to it on the campaign trail. He pledged deeper cuts to boards, agencies, and commissions while reversing a $90-million cut to charity tax credits.

He has also had to ask Justice Minister Jonathan Denis to resign from cabinet over a court action involving Denis's estranged wife and was forced to address leaked text messages suggesting his party forced out Calgary-area candidate Jamie Lall before the campaign began.

Political analysts say win or lose, Notley has been the story of the campaign.

The NDP won just four seats and 10 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. Under Notley, the polls suggest the New Democrats could dominate Edmonton this time around and a even make a breakthrough in the Tory fortress that is Calgary.

Notley, a lawyer and daughter of former provincial NDP leader Grant Notley, soared in popularity after the leaders debate.

Williams says Notley's success has been her ability to trade barbs while keeping her message upbeat and optimistic.

"People just like her. They're calling her Rachel," says Williams.

The NDP rise has led to the re-launch of the Progressive Conservative fear campaign.

Political scientist Duane Bratt noted in the 2012 election, the PCs wooed progressives back to the fold by warning of how a Wildrose government would be intolerant of minorities and indifferent to the environment.

This time, Bratt says, the Tories seek to woo fiscal conservatives back by suggesting that an NDP administration would mean an economic apocalypse for Alberta.

"The PCs' job is to keep putting doubts in the minds (of voters)," says Bratt, with Mount Royal University.

"It worked in 2012. It worked before."

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