OPINION | Lots on the line in Alberta as parties, and possibly the country, choose new leaders

The next provincial election is over two years away, but a number of important events appear on this year’s electoral calendar that pose a unique set of challenges for provincial parties of all stripes, says political scientist Jared Wesley.

There's no provincial vote in 2021, but there are plenty of other races to watch

UCP Leader Jason Kenney on election night in 2019. Kenney will face a party leadership review soon, and surviving it is not a given, says political scientist Jared Wesley. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As Alberta politics observers are fond of reminding voters, the next provincial election is over two years away. And given recent events and polling numbers, the governing UCP likely finds solace in that 25-month runway.

As distant as the 2023 Alberta election appears on our horizon, a number of important events loom on this year's electoral calendar that pose a unique set of challenges for provincial parties of all stripes. In this two-part series, political scientist Jared Wesley takes a look at the election year ahead for Albertans. He began last week with municipal elections. In Part 2, Wesley takes on provincial party leadership races and the possibility of a federal election.

This year will feature three provincial party leadership races.

As with the senate nominee elections I wrote about last week, the Wildrose Independence Party will look to use its leadership campaign to draw further support away from the governing UCP.

Two challenges lie in its way.

First, the "Independence" label may create a ceiling for the party in a province where support for separatism is waning and sits below 20 per cent.

Related to this, almost all of the WIP gains have come at the expense of the UCP in rural areas. Since the start of the pandemic, the NDP, not the Wildrose, has been the main beneficiary of dwindling UCP support in the urban and suburban areas.

Certainly, hiving off rural support is crucial to the WIP's short-term success; and vote-splitting poses a real threat to the UCP's path to re-election. Yet, as with Wildrose 1.0 and 2.0, the WIP (3.0) will need to develop credibility in the eyes of urban and suburban voters. This could begin with the selection of their next leader.

Alberta Party and Liberals choose new leaders

The Alberta Party and Liberal Party will select their own leaders in 2021, as well.

Both underperformed in the polarized environment surrounding the 2019 provincial election. Both lack ownership over key issues facing Albertans, and neither was able to overcome this to establish a favourable ballot question. Interestingly, they face opposite challenges when it comes to political marketing. 

The Alberta Party lacks brand consistency and recognition. With its leadership alternating between former PC and former Liberal/NDP leaders, the party has yet to establish itself as anything more than the face of Alberta's mushy middle. The next Alberta Party leader will need to establish a stronger brand presence. 

Conversely, the Alberta Liberals suffer from strong but long-standing negative brand association.

Both the Alberta Party and the Alberta Liberals will be selecting new leaders this year to replace Stephen Mandel, left, and David Khan, right. Political scientist Jared Wesley says we should expect both races to feature candidates pledging to join forces. (CBC)

In the eyes of many, the party remains synonymous with the deeply unpopular Laurentian elite. While previous provincial leaders have tried to overcome this by focusing on good public policy, few Alberta voters seem interested in perusing party platforms or looking past the Liberal moniker. 

We can expect both the Alberta Party and Liberal races to feature unity candidates — those committed to joining forces under a common, centre-left banner. This could involve a formal merger, but it also might involve non-aggression pacts (agreeing not to contest the same constituencies, avoiding potential vote-splitting).

Unlike previous unity discussions, the NDP are most certainly not in the mix. Without a strong set of leadership candidates, the Alberta Party and Liberals might well expect their progressive would-be supporters to further gravitate toward the NDP in the lead-up to the 2023 provincial election.

The last time Alberta experienced as many leadership races in as short a period of time, we saw many politicians switch parties — another thing to keep an eye on in 2021.

Federal election

A potential federal election remains a cloud hanging over Alberta politics in 2021.

At the federal level, most minority governments last less than two years. If history is any guide, Canada will be due for an election as early as spring 2021 — about 500 days since the last campaign.

These are far from historic times, of course. Yet the dynamics shaping up in Ottawa — a set of flagging or stalling opposition parties, a prime minister with improving popularity numbers, a recent cabinet shuffle, and a set of important and potentially painful economic decisions on the horizon — suggest Justin Trudeau may be more willing than ever to pull the plug on Parliament. 

The impact of a snap federal election on Alberta politics would be immense.

It would offer Premier Jason Kenney the opportunity to hit the hustings with CPC leader Erin O'Toole, reinvigorating the anti-Ottawa (read: anti-Trudeau, anti-carbon tax) rhetoric that helped propel the Conservatives to a near sweep of Alberta seats in the November 2019 federal election.

This time, they would have the federal government's rather passive response to the KXL pipeline cancellation as extra fodder. 

A federal campaign would also remind Albertans of the connections between the UCP and its federal cousin, which remains far more popular. For a time, a federal campaign might also serve to distract Albertans from provincial politics — a welcome reprieve for the Kenney team, who have earned more suntans in the limelight than on Hawaiian beaches.

This said, failure by the O'Toole Conservatives to unseat the Liberals nationally would carry consequences for the mainstream, federalist conservative movement in Alberta. Separatist sentiments surged in Alberta following the Liberals' win in the 2019 federal election, reaching over 30 per cent.

It's hard to imagine a third straight Liberal win — combined, little doubt, with another near-sweep of Alberta seats by the CPC — would temper those sentiments. This plays into the hands of the Wildrose Independence Party, and perhaps their federal counterpart, the Maverick Party. 

A federal election would offer Premier Jason Kenney, left, the opportunity to hit the hustings with CPC leader Erin O’Toole, right, reinvigorating his anti-Ottawa rhetoric and reminding Albertans of the connections between the UCP and its federal cousin, which remains far more popular, says Jared Wesley. (Amber Bracken/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

UCP leadership review

All of this presumes Jason Kenney is still at the helm of the UCP throughout 2021. This is not a given.

At its 2020 AGM, the party adopted its first set of rules to govern how and when its leaders would be selected and removed. According to the resolution that passed, a leadership review will be held "at one out of every three annual general meetings of the party, which must be years where an election date is not fixed by the Election Act."

Given the UCP has held three AGMs since its founding in 2017, a leadership review can be expected at some point in 2021 or 2022. The party has not announced when this new bylaw will come into force, however, raising questions as to whether the new rules will apply to Kenney in this election cycle.

Further provisions in the rules allow UCP board members and constituency associations to trigger a special general meeting to hold a leadership review. Should the leader fail to receive 50 per cent support in the resulting vote, a leadership election would take place.

Even when their party constitutions contain such provisions, few Canadian party leaders are ousted through a formal vote of the membership.

Ralph Klein's experience is rare in this regard; he resigned as leader after receiving 55 per cent support in a 2006 PC Party of Alberta leadership review. This fell below the unofficial two-thirds threshold set by federal PC leader Joe Clark, who resigned after a leadership review in 1983.

Most leaders see the writing on the wall and resign before the ballots are cast.

With his personal popularity numbers flagging even in advance of the parks reversal, #AlohaGate scandal and KXL collapse — and an RCMP investigation into his 2017 leadership race still ongoing — questions remain as to whether Kenney could survive a leadership vote.

Whether at the next AGM, at a special general meeting or sometime after the next election, such a review must be on the minds if not the calendars of the premier and his staff. His ability to navigate the municipal elections, equalization referendum, Senate nominee elections and a potential federal election will have a major impact on his performance in that eventual vote.

All this to say, the road to the 2023 provincial election runs through some rough political terrain in 2021. Each party's ability to navigate the year may well determine their competitiveness in that distant campaign.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.


Jared Wesley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta. He leads the Common Ground initiative, co-leads the Viewpoint Alberta Project, and has published research related to Canadian politics, provincial elections and political culture.

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