Former cabinet minister Gary Mar commands a big lead after the first round of voting for the next leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, but it will be another two weeks before he knows if he’ll get the job and become premier of the province.

None of the six leadership candidates won the necessary 50 per cent plus one ballots Saturday in the race to replace Ed Stelmach as party leader and Alberta premier.

A second ballot featuring the top three finishers — Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner — will be held Oct. 1.

Mar, a health minister in the government of Ralph Klein who has promised a more transparent, respectful party if he wins, earned nearly 41 per cent of votes on the first ballot. Next came former justice minister Alison Redford, with almost 19 per cent, and  former deputy premier Doug Horner, with a little more than 14 per cent.

3 candidates eliminated

Former cabinet ministers Ted Morton, Rick Orman and backbencher Doug Griffiths failed to win enough votes to move forward and have been eliminated.

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Gary Mar greets supporters after the first ballot Saturday in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Stelmach succeeded Klein as premier in 2006 after coming from third place after the first leadership ballot. He announced in January that he was leaving politics.

Observers and polls suggested from the start that Mar was the front-runner, but the popular belief was that he didn't have enough support to avoid a second ballot.

"We are very, very close to doing the job, finishing the job and winning," Mar said after the ballot Saturday. "My job is very clear over the next two weeks. I've got to get out there and sell more memberships, and our team is going to do that.

Fewer than 60,000 party members took part in the vote Saturday compared with the 97,690 who voted in the first round of the 2006 campaign.

Apathy a worry

The lower numbers were disappointing to some party members, including Griffiths. 

"Low voter turnout usually means apathy and apathy doesn't exactly bode well when you're choosing the next premier of the province so I think the party needs to step back and ask a lot of serious questions about why that happened with lower voter turnout."

Party president Bill Smith, however, dismissed concerns about a low turnout, suggesting it could be expected when party members from rural areas were busy with the harvest.

The campaign started immediately after Stelmach made a surprise announcement in late January that he was stepping down. Two days later, Morton resigned his position as finance minister to run for the party's top job.

Redford, the justice minister, and Horner, the deputy premier and advanced education minister, joined the race shortly afterwards. Like Morton, they resigned their cabinet posts, following guidelines put in place earlier by Stelmach. 

Griffiths, a junior cabinet minister and MLA for Battle River-Wainwright, declared his intentions in mid-February.

Mar resigned his post in March as the province's envoy in Washington, D.C., to enter the race. Rick Orman, a member of ex-premier Don Getty's cabinet, was the last to join the race in May.

Race expected to heat up

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says it's been a tame campaign so far, but he believes the race will change over the next two weeks.

Vote count

  • Gary Mar: 24,318
  •  Alison Redford: 11,147
  •  Doug Horner: 8,648
  •  Ted Morton: 6,969
  • Rick Orman: 6,010
  • Doug Griffiths: 2,445 
  • Total votes cast: 59,537

"By and large, the only person that they've been bashing has been Ed Stelmach," he said. "Come the second ballot, though, I think that's when you're going to start to see more going after each other."

Mar was identified as the front-runner in a controversial poll released this week by the Calgary Herald newspaper.

The Environics poll found their polling subjects using a party membership list that candidates say was supposed to be confidential.

Questions poll timing

On Thursday, Orman called on the party to investigate. He questions the accuracy of the poll because he doesn't believe enough of his supporters were surveyed. He also objected to the results being released the day advance polls opened.

"I've asked my fellow candidates to support me by signing a letter to the party and agreeing to an investigation, agreeing to the fact that we should investigate this matter," Orman said. "I believe the party should request the poll back from the Calgary Herald or from Environics."

The race has also seen its share of other controversies. There were allegations Mar's campaign broke party rules by allowing his supporters to sell memberships within 50 metres of the advance polling stations.

A CBC News investigation revealed that Morton used a second email account under his real name "Frederick Lee" for government communications when he was a cabinet minister and shredded documents after he resigned from cabinet.

Morton denied he did anything wrong and said many provincial and federal cabinet ministers have secondary email accounts.

 

With files from The Canadian Press