The Alberta election is shaping up to be the most interesting in decades and the outcome will reflect whether the political landscape is fundamentally shifting in the province.
Albertans go to the polls on April 23, and the race for premier is playing out as a neck-and-neck battle between Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford and the upstart Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith.
“The outcome of this election is going to be interesting because it will tell us just how much things have changed in Alberta,” says John Church, associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta.
“Depending on how this election turns out we could be seeing how much the political landscape has shifted.”
The election both of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s first Muslim mayor, and Alberta’s first female premier, Alison Redford, are signs that the political landscape has been changing gradually over the past 15-20 years, says Church.
But the sudden spike in popularity for the hard-right Wildrose Party shows the only threat to the Conservatives’ four-decade monopoly is coming even further from the right.
“As the government has moved more towards the centre of the political spectrum, those people who would normally vote conservative but who have views that are further on the right, have felt increasingly alienated from the Conservative Party,” says Church.
“The Wildrose, because it is positioned further to the right on the political spectrum, has been able to capitalize on the sentiment from that segment of the voting population.”
This means that the most exciting Alberta election in decades is turning into a competition between the ruling Conservative Party and a party that may be even more conservative.
But the election does not only affect policy in Alberta; it will also determine how the province engages the rest of Canada, particularly around oil development and natural resource strategies.
Church says Wildrose policies have been decidedly “Alberta centric,” while Redford has tried to develop a national strategy, particularly around energy, in partnership with the federal government.
“Redford is definitely looking at Alberta within the context of Canada,” he says.
Barry Cooper, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and a columnist for the Calgary Herald, says the Wildrose Party’s strong campaign has caught the Conservatives off-guard and is forcing them to shed the complacency of a 41-year monopoly.
“I think [the Conservatives] are completely bewildered. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. They haven’t had to campaign because they’ve only had opposition from the left,” he says.
“They’ve had to play catch-up and they’ve had to react to a number of initiatives from the Wildrose.”
But Church says it’s too soon to tell whether the Wildrose will win a majority in the election.
“It could go either way,” he says.
“If we look historically at the Conservative Party, they’re pretty adept at recovering after making major political blunders, even during an election campaign. I think it’s going to be a very close election.”