05/27/2011 06:59 EDT | Updated 07/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Stelmach Tenders Resignation As Alberta Conservative Leader

EDMONTON (CP) — Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has tendered his official resignation as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, sounding the gun on a leadership race that will culminate with two possible rounds of voting later this year.

Party members will vote for the next leader, and premier, on Sept. 17. If no one garners more than half the ballots cast, the top three candidates will face off in a second vote Oct. 1 — the day Stelmach will formally quit as leader.

“I thank the membership of our party for the support given to me and to my family and for the opportunity to lead Alberta through a difficult period,” Stelmach wrote in the letter to party president Bill Smith dated Friday.

“We are well-positioned as a party and government to continue to earn the trust of Albertans and to lead our province into an even brighter future.”

The unofficial leadership race has been on almost from the moment Stelmach announced his intention to step down last January.

Six people have already said they are interested in the job.

Three of Stelmach's cabinet ministers _ Doug Horner, Alison Redford and Ted Morton _ have left their posts to compete. Backbencher Doug Griffiths and Gary Mar, a former cabinet minister from the Klein years, are also vying for the job. Mar left his position as Alberta's representative in Washington so he could run. Rick Orman, a former cabinet minister who hasn't been in politics for almost 20 years, threw his hat into the ring earlier this month.

Nominations are to open June 17 and close July 15. Eight official candidate forums are to be held before the first ballot.

Stelmach, just three years removed from a massive majority election victory, shocked his caucus with his resignation. He had been saddled with a low popularity rating and a surging right-wing rival in the Wildrose Alliance, and there had been suggestions Stelmach was getting heat from insiders to pull the plug.

The last straw was reported to have come when Morton, who was finance minister and one of the more fiscally conservative voices in the party, threatened to resign rather than back another deficit budget. Morton mocked those reports but didn't specifically deny them.

The leadership race is an important one for the Tories, who have been in power for 40 years and have existed as the big-tent party in the province.

The Alliance, with an effective leader in Calgary businesswoman Danielle Smith and an organizing team boasting many former Tories, is threatening to supplant the Tories as Alberta's traditional fiscal conservatives.

The Alliance has just four members in the 83-seat legislature but has matched the governing party in some public opinion polls.