WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger launched his campaign to keep his job Friday, filing nomination papers at NDP headquarters for a leadership race that has been forced upon him.
"For sure, it's a challenging set of circumstances. But my objective has been to make it as democratic a process as possible", Selinger, who will remain as premier during the race, told reporters.
Selinger has been facing a caucus coup over the government's low poll numbers, which prompted five senior cabinet ministers to resign in November after suggesting Selinger consider quitting.
At Selinger's behest, the NDP executive called a leadership contest for March 8 to settle the dispute, under a little-used section of the party's constitution that says the leadership can be up for election at any annual convention.
One of the ministers who resigned in November, Theresa Oswald, has already launched her campaign. Also in the race is Steve Ashton, a former infrastructure and transportation minister who stayed away from the caucus coup but later threw his hat in the ring.
"I've got a lot of respect for Greg Selinger, for the five years he's served as our premier," Ashton said Friday.
"I will be, and have been putting forward, some very different perspectives."
Selinger has kept a low profile in recent weeks, and said Friday his intention is to focus much more on government business than the leadership race.
"I intend to spend my time fulfilling my duties as premier of the province of Manitoba, and I've done that every day.
"There is a leadership contest going on. That will be the second priority."
Supporters of Selinger, Ashton and Oswald have until Tuesday to sell party memberships and boost their chances of getting a majority of delegates to the March 8 leadership vote. Oswald has attracted some high-profile support, both from caucus and party ranks, including Anna Rothney, who was a top Selinger adviser until last month.
It's unclear how much support Selinger has. He launched a website Friday that features endorsements from nine people, including three cabinet ministers he promoted after Oswald and the other rebels resigned in November.
The NDP has been under fire since raising the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven in 2013. Ashton has promised to hold a referendum on repealing the tax if he is elected.
Selinger indicated he will not promise any big changes during the leadership campaign — only expand on items in the government's November throne speech, such as new child care spaces.
Ashton and Oswald have been promising new measures. Ashton said Friday he would appoint a new minister of local food to promote Manitoba meat, seafood and more. He said it would not lead to a separate department or increased costs, and could be handled by a minister who already has other portfolios.