It appears the People's Alliance of New Brunswick party will achieve official status by the end of the month. They're on pace to have the 10 riding associations and the duly elected leader to be recognized by Elections New Brunswick. Among other things, this allows the party's name to be listed on ballots next to those of their candidates.

The party is obviously responding to a sentiment that's out there among New Brunswickers: the frustration with a political system in which party discipline trumps the ability of MLAs to vote according to their conscience, or to the wishes of their constitutents. Whether that frustration translates into anything remains to be seen.

In the meantime, here are five questions worth exploring about the People's Alliance:

How much support to they have? The party has only a few hundred supporters at the moment. But they may grow. They're unlikely to gain enough to elect a single MLA (though many said the same thing of the Confederation of Regions Party at this point in 1991). But even a couple of hundred votes in a handful of ridings could swing those seats in a close election.

Where are they? The other factor in whether the party has an impact is where their support is located. If you spread, say, 2,500 votes among 55 ridings, it doesn't yield much at all. But if those 2,500 votes were concentrated in five ridings, that's 500 votes per riding, more than enough to affect the outcome. (COR got 21 per cent of the vote in 1991, but it was above 40 per cent in and around Fredericton, enough to win most of the seats in the area.) So far, the Alliance support seems to be clustered in a few ridings, which may actually be to their advantage in the short term.

Who are they? The Liberals are pushing the line that the new party is made up mostly of discontent Tories. As cabinet minister Donald Arseneault says, given the NB Power controversy and the PC lead in the polls, you'd think people would be flocking to the Tories, not away from them. Most of the "prominent" names with the Alliance (and I use that term loosely) are indeed former PCs, including interim leader Kris Austin, who failed to win the Tory nomination in Grand Lake-Gagetown, and that is bad news for PC leader David Alward. But Austin tells me at least one high-profile Liberal will declare for the Alliance soon.

What are they? Austin says the party is neither left nor right; it wants to reform the political system by allowing free votes and more direct democracy. But he denies it's a one-issue party; he says a policy convention later this year will draft specific proposals on a variety of issues. This could create tension: the COR party was torn apart in part by the fundamental contradiction of being answerable to both constituents and partisan party members. Austin says "democracy" will prevail, but in COR, the party grassroots considered itself the genuine democratic voice, to the chagrin of some of the party's MLAs.

How do the Liberals play this? If we accept the premise, plausible but not proven, that the Alliance does more harm to the Tories, how do the Liberals react? Will we see them attempt to build up the party, say by insisting they have a role in the TV debates, so as to further damage the PCs? Would the Liberals go so far as to ask some of their donors to give money to the Alliance? As I said on TV, the Alliance hopes to make the election more interesting, and it appears the Liberals are hoping for the same thing.

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