Provincial elections are rarely nail-biters in Alberta as voters stick with dynasty after dynasty.
But after more than four decades in power, the Progressive Conservative government has come under attack for its spendthrift budgeting and seeming sense of entitlement. This time, the salvoes aren't just coming from the Liberals and NDP on the left, but also the right as the upstart Wildrose Party has attracted both growing support and significant financing.
Premier Alison Redford is expected to drop the writ Monday to kick off a 28-day campaign that will see Albertans head to the ballot box on April 23. Most polls and pundits agree the Tories will retain a majority, albeit slimmed down, as political newcomer Danielle Smith is projected to lead Wildrose to official opposition status, displacing the struggling Liberals.
Nothing is certain in a campaign, but one thing appears guaranteed. It's going to be ugly. At his goodbye press conference, former premier Ed Stelmach warned against "U.S.-style attack ads," but the negative advertising has already surfaced pitting the right-leaning parties against one another.
The Favourite: Alison Redford
Progressive Conservative Party
When the 47-year-old international lawyer launched her political career, she seemed destined for the premier's office. First elected to the legislature in 2008, Ms. Redford filled former premier Ralph Klein's seat in Calgary. She was quickly appointed justice minister by Mr. Stelmach, whom she succeeded last October despite her underdog, outsider status in the leadership race. By dissolution, the Tories had 66 seats of 83 – soon to be expanded to 87 seats – in the legislature.
Keys to success:
What Ms. Redford hopes to offer voters is a fresh, transparent party. The PCs have wallowed as members are accused of using bullying tactics and of being complacent and greedy after decades in power. She casts herself as evidence of internal party change in winning the leadership contest by attracting Liberal voters and upsetting the Tory party's old boys' network.
"I'm very excited about the campaign and I am very confident," Ms. Redford said, "We're going to talk about policy. We're going to talk about our records. We're going to talk about our values and our people. And, Albertans will decide."
Using the long-running party machine to get the vote out will be crucial. Even in its own membership mail out, the PC party has called the campaign the most competitive election since 1993 and one that needs to be won "on the ground."
Voter apathy – the lowest turnout in history at little more than 40 per cent – helped the Tories take a massive majority in 2008. Few expect that to be the case this time.
"They've hung positioning of the party on Alison Redford," said Calgary pollster Bruce Cameron of Return on Insight, "But she's untested in a campaign that will be this gruelling and this nasty."
The Challenger: Danielle Smith
The 40-year-old former journalist and one-time Calgary school-board trustee has been the leader of the right-wing upstart for more than two years, but she still doesn't have a seat in the legislature. However, lack of presence during Question Period hasn't stopped her from becoming the most quoted opposition leader, and if the polls are correct, she's poised to become the next leader of the official opposition. Wildrose has four seats, but three belong to former Tories who crossed the floor, while just one came by way of election under the party banner.
Keys to success:
The election is a question of whether Albertans are ready to give up on the PC party – if not now, perhaps in four years. Ms. Smith's challenge is to put a moderate face and spin on a party with roots on the far right. She's a libertarian, but many of her supporters are social conservatives whose beliefs don't mesh with mainstream voters.
Ms. Smith is popular in southern Alberta, especially the rural areas and with male voters, but there isn't the same resonance in northern Alberta, especially Edmonton.
Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, said Ms. Smith has to prove she's more than an "attack dog," but actually leading a government-in-waiting.
"She's got to offer people the assurance that she has the political instinct, the political acumen to be able to embrace the political centre where most Albertans are," he said.
Ms. Smith plans to do just that.
"I said we would create a mainstream big-tent conservative party that was capable of forming government," she said. "There is not much point in being in it if you aren't in it to win it – and we are."
The Wildcard: Raj Sherman
The 45-year-old former emergency-room doctor was first elected as a Tory in an Edmonton riding, but he was punted from caucus after publicly criticizing health-care waiting times in the province. Initially sitting as an independent, Dr. Sherman ran for the Liberal leadership last year. He won on the first ballot in September to succeed former leader David Swann. The Liberals enter the election as the Official Opposition, with eight seats.
Keys to success
The Liberals have one goal: make this an election about health care, which conveniently, is always the top issue among voters and is the best card Dr. Sherman has up his sleeve. The Liberals could try to cash in on reports of doctor intimidation as well as the government's botched transition to a single health board, which has become a lightening rod for those inside and outside the health system.
Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said although Dr. Sherman has charisma and health-care knowhow, the party should focus its energy on about a dozen seats it even has a chance of capturing.
"If they maintain official party status, they will have been successful," Prof. Brownsey said.
Although the party has failed to nominate a full slate of candidates, Dr. Sherman remains optimistic that it has momentum and the financial strength to mount a credible campaign across the province.
"I ask every progressive out there to vote for the new Alberta Liberal Party," Dr. Sherman said, "We can form government this election … on election day."
The Workhorse: Brian Mason
The 58-year-old former Edmonton bus driver and city councillor is a veteran of the legislature. First elected in 2001, Mr. Mason became party leader in 2004. His focus has remained true to New Democratic ideals such as public health care, access to social services and labour concerns. The NDP caucus is small – just two seats – but between Mr. Mason and colleague Rachel Notley, it has been feisty, effective and respected by other parties in the legislature.
Keys to success:
The party saw its fortunes surge in last year's federal election, where it held the only non-Tory riding in the province. It hopes to build on that success by breaking through as the go-to progressive party in an election when Alberta has, for the first time, a vote split on the right. If it does, Mr. Mason could become Alberta's first NDP official opposition leader in two decades.
It was the first party to have nominated candidates in all 87 ridings and plans to run a strong ground game. Most pundits expect the NDP to at least double its current seat count and make a breakthrough in Lethbridge.
Mr. Mason hopes his party will ride the orange wave as voters are turned off by the fighting on the right and the troubled Liberals under a rookie leader on the left.
"We are seen as much more consistent and reliable," Mr. Mason said, "… Many Liberal voters are looking for a new home. I expect we will pick up some seats."
Harold Jansen, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, said if the NDP focuses its campaign on geographic hot spots, the party could supplant the Liberals as the natural alternative on the left and even outperform the party in terms of seat count.
"A wave might be a bit generous," Prof. Jansen said, "A splash maybe."
With files from Josh Wingrove and Sandra Martin