09/20/2011 09:22 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta's Crowded Political Centre Gives Wildrose Reason To Drink


The Alberta Tories are moving to the centre in Canada’s most conservative province, possibly opening the door to Danielle Smith’s decidedly right-wing Wildrose Party.

Members of Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservative Party voted for their next leader and premier over the weekend. In a contest with a surprisingly low turnout, Gary Mar finished with a commanding 41 per cent of the vote, well ahead of his closest rivals Alison Redford (19 per cent) and Doug Horner (15 per cent). However, with 50 per cent of the vote needed to elect its next leader, the party will be holding its second round of voting in October.

Gone from the ballot are such conservative stalwarts as Ted Morton and Rick Orman. Mar, Redford and Horner all belong to the progressive side of the Progressive Conservatives, indicating that the party that has governed Alberta since 1971 will be moving towards the centre.

But they won’t be alone.

Despite being little more than a one-party state for four decades, Alberta’s politics are becoming increasingly fractured. In addition to the Tories, the Alberta legislature is occupied by MLAs from the Liberal, New Democratic, Wildrose and Alberta parties. Only one of those parties sits on the right of the PCs.

Less than two weeks ago, the Alberta Liberals chose former Tory MLA Raj Sherman as their new leader. Under his stewardship, it is unlikely that the Liberals will move further left of the PCs.

But Sherman has a lot of work to do if he is to improve the party’s fortunes. The last polls from the province date to July, well before the Tory and Liberal leadership races reached their denouement, but suggest the trouble the party is in. In polls by ThinkHQ and Environics, the Liberals stood between 11 and 14 per cent support, well below the 26 per cent the party garnered in the 2008 provincial election.

Also crowding the centre is the Alberta Party, which has a sitting MLA thanks to floor-crosser and former Liberal Dave Taylor. The Alberta Party is low in the polls, but a positive sign for the party is that it is actually registering. Support for the centrist party sits at between two and four per cent, certainly not enough to elect any MLAs but more than enough to spoil a close race or two for the PCs.

And then there are the New Democrats, further to the left but showing signs of life. The ThinkHQ and Environics poll pegged the NDP at 14 per cent support, up six points since the last Alberta election.

With the PCs jostling with three other parties for centrist voters, the Wildrose Party has an opportunity to make gains. Under the premiership of moderate leader Ed Stelmach, the Tories fell behind Wildrose in a few surveys. The right-wing conservative party of Danielle Smith has since lost some of its lustre, but is nevertheless a major threat to the PCs.

Where their support stands today is anyone’s guess. In July, Environics suggested that support for Wildrose had tanked to only 16 per cent support, but ThinkHQ still had Wildrose at 30 per cent, only nine points behind the governing Tories. Though these polls are now two months old, it is clear that Wildrose is not going away anytime soon. And with the Tories seemingly abandoning the right to Wildrose, it is understandable that Smith had “a small glass of wine” after hearing of the first ballot results.

An early election in Alberta could come soon, as Gary Mar (or, less likely, Redford or Horner) will want to cash in on his glittering novelty as soon as possible. An early election would also give less time for Sherman’s Liberals and the Alberta Party to solidify support. But with the Progressive Conservatives moving to Alberta’s political centre and Wildrose far from being out of the picture, the results of the next vote in Alberta could still be a surprise.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.