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David Khan elected to lead Alberta Liberals 100 years less a day after party's last election victory

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David Khan, seen here with Liberal Party executive director Gwyneth Midgley

Members of the Alberta Liberal Party elected David Khan to what has to be among the toughest political jobs in the province yesterday at their annual general meeting in Calgary.

Alas for Mr. Khan, a Calgary lawyer who specializes in Indigenous law and former senior party official, he will have a very hard time getting any Alberta Liberal elected in the next general election, and that includes himself.

To add insult to the likelihood of political injury, Mr. Khan may not even get the opportunity to properly celebrate his victory, what with insiders buzzing today with talk the New Democratic Party Government of Premier Rachel Notley will push through its labour relations reform legislation and send MLAs home for the summer as soon as Tuesday.

I expect Mr. Khan will do his utmost for his party. He will be persuasive and hard working. But it is very hard to imagine any circumstance in which Alberta's battered provincial Liberals can succeed electorally in Alberta any time in the foreseeable future.

There's just not much traction left for a party that last won an election in Alberta a century ago tomorrow, and which saw its modern high tide in 1993 when under Laurence Decore it looked like a contender but failed to knock off the Progressive Conservatives headed by their then-new leader, Ralph Klein.

Conventional wisdom in Alberta after the heartbreaker of '93 was that the Liberals suffered a "damaged brand," thanks to the unpopularity in the province of Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau a generation ago.

Could be. That's certainly part of the story. Aside from the disaster of Raj Sherman, the feckless former Tory who led the party into its present straits from 2011 to 2015, the Alberta Liberals have been led by a string of fine people -- Grant Mitchell, Nancy MacBeth, Ken Nicol, Kevin Taft, and David Swann -- none of whom ever seemed to click with Albertans.

Mr. Khan seems likely to join that distinguished company of thoughtful, intelligent, truly decent people, any one of whom had the potential to be a capable premier, who all took on the task of rehabilitating the Liberals in the eyes of Albertans with only faint prospects for success.

The election of Premier Notley's NDP in May 2015 makes this task more difficult, not less so. Mr. Khan's claim yesterday that Liberals can capture centrist voters disillusioned by the NDP seems like a triumph of hope over experience.

As blogger Dave Cournoyer wrote yesterday, why would any sensible Liberal concerned about the Tory Old Boys Club returning to mismanage Alberta turn against Ms. Notley when she is essentially delivering the policies long demanded by Liberal supporters?

Some disillusioned NDP-voting Liberals might return to the fold, I suppose. Some might drift to the unite-the-middle option former PC cabinet minister and Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel hopes to set up. But most will likely stick it out with Ms. Notley and the NDP on the reasonable grounds she'll probably continue delivering the policies like those their party has called for, and because she's the most likely leader to block the social conservative nightmare PC Leader Jason Kenney promises if he can emerge as boss of the United Conservative Party.

Not only that, but Ms. Notley can count on the continued support of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- Mr. Khan’s loyalty to the federal party notwithstanding -- because her government's survival is an integral part of the federal government’s strategy for riding a national carbon agreement to re-election.

In those circumstances, Mr. Khan will get lots of advice -- to sign onto Mr. Mandel’s still theoretical partnership of Red Tories and Alberta Partiers, to throw in the towel and join the NDP, or to surrender to the conservative Opposition. It seems more likely he'll struggle to find a way to keep his Liberals the game.  

Mr. Khan defeated Kerry Cundal, another Calgary lawyer -- quite narrowly, according to reports.

Mr. Khan and Ms. Cundal were both latecomers to the race, after St. Alberta Mayor Nolan Crouse, up to then the only remaining candidate, suddenly dropped out in March hours before the nomination deadline.

The Alberta Liberal Party news release announcing Mr. Khan's election mentioned neither the percentage of votes by which he won nor the number of ballots cast. Mr. Cournoyer reports only 1,662 ballots were cast, 897 for Mr. Khan.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Flickr/daveberta

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