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Alberta Liberals and New Democrats: Will they will, or will they won't, be buddies?

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Will they will, or will they won't, be buddies? That’s the question a lot of Albertans keep asking themselves about the provincial Liberals and the Alberta New Democrats.

After all, as the Democratic Renewal Project, Alberta's minuscule but determined unite-the-left faction, endlessly repeats, if only the Liberals and the NDP could get together they might somehow be able to defeat the province's right if it splits its vote between the Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance in the next provincial election.

Actually, the right-wing vote is so strong in many parts of this province, and the Liberal-NDP rivalry so intense, that this idea is not much more than a pipedream for the coalition zealots of the DRP, the always optimistic Yente of Alberta's political left.

But as the recent post-election shuffle in the United Kingdom illustrates, it may be the wrong question for Albertans to be asking anyway.

Maybe the real question, come the next election, is who will cut a deal with Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives to keep the Wildrose Alliance out of power -- the Liberals, or the New Democrats?

The most reliable recent polls seem to suggest that the Conservatives are still leading the Alliance by enough committed voters to form a razor-thin majority. But the trend has not been in their favour. Stelmach's leadership is prone to stumbles, and the Alliance under former journalist and Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith has continued to see its support grow.

So it is not outlandish to suppose that if the government waits until March 2012 to call an election, as the stubborn Stelmach has promised, the Wildrose Alliance under Smith could be in a position to form a minority government.

In that event, there will be plenty of pressure on the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats alike to do something to keep the far-right Alliance -- with its market fundamentalist ideas on charter schools, "right-to-work" labour laws and privatized health care -- as far as possible from power.

But given both their long history of animosity toward one another and the arithmetic of Alberta politics, it is much more likely Liberals or even New Democrats would be able to cut a coalition deal with the Conservatives than with each other.

Liberal ambivalence about the New Democrats was clearly on display at the Alberta Liberal convention in Edmonton last weekend when delegates narrowly passed a mealy-mouthed resolution to "work together" with "other progressive parties" in the next election.

The timid resolution, which passed 81 to 64, infuriated as many Alberta Liberals as it pleased. Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann marched out for an emergency meeting, then marched back to say the vote changed nothing much.

For his part, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said he was willing to speak with Swann, but dismissed coalition talk -- as indeed he must, since his party has even less appetite for it than the Liberals.

There's just no way either of these gentlemen is going to say of the other any time soon, "is you is, or is you ain’t, my baby?"

Meanwhile, it's unlikely Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives would dignify this kind of talk with a comment, at least while they still lead in the polls.

But that would change quickly if the premier faced losing power to Smith, and either the Liberals or the NDP were prepared to play the kingmaker as British Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg did across the pond last weekend.

Of course, if the Wildrose Alliance wins decisively, what's left of Stelmach's Tories will be quietly absorbed into its ranks soon enough. The same thing would probably happen if the Tories won big and the Wildrose results disappointed the new party's supporters.

Then everything will be back to normal in Alberta -- one massive right-wing party in power and two tiny centre-left parties fighting it out for the scraps.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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