09/10/2011 06:46 EDT | Updated 11/10/2011 05:12 EST

Raj Sherman chosen new leader of Opposition Alberta Liberals

EDMONTON - Raj Sherman, an emergency room doctor kicked out of the Alberta government caucus for criticizing its health policy, is now the new leader of the province's official Opposition.

The 45-year-old emergency room doctor captured almost 55 per cent of the 8,640 votes cast in party balloting Saturday to become the new leader of the Alberta Liberal Party.

"Tonight we will celebrate. Tomorrow we focus on renewing and rebuilding the Alberta Liberal Party!" Sherman told more than 100 party faithful who cheered the final results when they were announced Saturday in the main gym on the University of Alberta campus.

Sherman defeated four other candidates in the contest to replace leader David Swann.

He captured 4,684 votes — more than the required 50 per cent plus one of the votes on the first ballot.

Edmonton Liberal legislature member Hugh MacDonald was second, with 2,239 votes — 26 per cent of the total ballots cast.

Fellow Edmonton Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman was third. She took 854 votes, almost 10 per cent of the total, while Calgary businessman Bill Harvey gained 626 votes (7.3 per cent) and southern Alberta carpenter and union organizer Bruce Payne got 197 votes (2.3 per cent).

The contest was announced after Swann said in February he was resigning as leader. However, Swann plans to still run as a legislature member in the riding of Calgary-Mountain View.

A general election is expected to be called next spring, but could come as early as this fall. The governing Progressive Conservatives will hold a party vote in the coming weeks to replace Premier Ed Stelmach by Oct. 1.

Sherman joined the Liberal Party earlier this year after he was ejected from the government caucus for criticizing the premier and others for failing to implement health reforms to reduce long waiting lists for care.

He campaigned on a platform of pushing the Tories to fix long wait lists and substandard care in the health system. Opponents in the race criticized him as a one-issue johnny-come-lately candidate.

Sherman told reporters that as leader he is up to the challenge of engaging party members and voters on a wide spectrum of issues.

"When I entered politics, my issue was fixing health care. Now, after having been in government for three years I realize the problem is the government. It's the decision-making process that's sick."

Party rules prevented Sherman from joining the Liberal caucus until he runs under the party banner in a general election. However, there is a provision in the party rules that allow him to join caucus if caucus members vote to OK it, and that's expected to happen soon.

He is the second floor-crossing Tory to head the party in the last decade. When they were routed in the 2001 general election, the Liberals were led by former Tory health minister Nancy MacBeth.

This leadership race was a groundbreaking contest.

The 8,640 who voted were almost double the 4,500 who cast ballots in the 2008 race that catapulted Swann to the leadership.

In that contest, only paid party members could vote, while this time the Liberals allowed anyone to sign up for free and vote as a designated party "supporter."

The party said about 27,000 registered to vote.

More than half of those were signed up by Sherman's team through an automated "demon dialler" phone fan out, in which respondents would answer the phone to hear a recorded message and then, if they so desired, could punch a number to sign up.

Sherman implored his constituents this week to get the vote out as it appeared a lot of the demon dialler respondents were not casting ballots.

MacDonald and Harvey complained about the process, saying that some of those signed up either weren't eligible, or were eligible but didn't even know they'd signed up.

MacDonald said he respects the voters' decision, but said the system was fatally flawed. The 56-year-old, four-term MLA said a lot of his members did not get their voting PIN numbers and that when they tried to dial in Saturday, the lines were constantly busy.

"I would not encourage any political party ever to experiment with this sort of process ever again," said MacDonald. "So many of our supporters who were members did not get the right to vote."

Blakeman, a four-term legislature member, has labelled Sherman a polarizing figure with different political views than hers, but said she will rally behind him.

"This will be the sixth leader I've worked under. I'm pretty resilient," said Blakeman.

"Frankly my job now is to serve my constituents, to serve my caucus and to serve the people of Alberta, so I'll do whatever they need me to do."

Sherman now faces a challenge of building a party that sits as the official Opposition but is seeing time and political tides turning against it.

The party has eight members in the 83-seat legislature but its support in recent popularity polls has been eaten away by the left-centre NDP and the upstart centrist Alberta Party.

The Liberals haven't held power in Alberta for 90 years.

While the Liberals remain the official Opposition, the possibility of vote splitting with the NDP and Alberta Party, along with a surging right-of centre Wildrose Party, puts it at risk of falling to third-party status after the next election.

That would relegate it from front and centre to a corner of the legislature. Also, it would suffer a critical loss in research funds, question time, and media exposure that comes with official Opposition status.

There will be 87 ridings in the next general election, but so far only 10 Liberal candidates have been confirmed. Party executive director Corey Hogan said non-incumbent party nomination battles were put on hold pending the leadership outcome and that another 43 candidates are ready to go.

Hogan said the party has about $30,000 in the bank despite a leadership contest that cost $90,000.

Before the results were announced, Swann urged supporters to unite behind the new leader, bluntly adding that the Liberal party as it exists today doesn't deserve the trust of Albertans.

"I'm here to tell you that we'll never form government — in fact we don't deserve to form government — until we take a long, hard look at ourselves and our actions," said Swann.

"All of us share the responsibility for where we are today."

He said the Liberals remain the best option for voters with their combination of fiscal pragmatism and social liberalism.

"Without strong alternatives, democracy will wither," said Swann.