So far, 2010 has been pretty rosy for Alberta’s far-right Wildrose Alliance Party.
Despite what you may have read in the media, however, the good times are not guaranteed to continue for the new political party. The Alliance's moment of maximum political danger is likely later this year and in early 2011 when it starts choosing local candidates to run in the provincial election expected in 2012.
Right now, the Alliance smells like a rose. In former broadcaster Danielle Smith, it has an appealing leader who makes loony right-wing nostrums sound like common sense. She has captured the imagination of many Albertans, including building a huge fan club in the media. With many Albertans weary of the lacklustre leadership of Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives, this translates into strong polling results for the Alliance.
In January, the party wooed two Conservative MLAs to its ranks. Former cabinet minister Heather Forsyth, MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, will appeal to many female voters and moderate Red Tories. Rob Anderson, MLA for the suburban Airdrie-Chestermere riding north of Calgary, will satisfy the party's fiscal-conservative base.
At the time, as many as a dozen more Conservative MLAs were rumoured to be pondering crossing the floor. A shrewdly moderate budget in late February stanched the flow of treasonous Tories for the moment, but Wildrose strategists -- many with close ties to Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives -- are working hard to get the defections to resume.
Smith has played the political game with skill, smoothly avoiding issues that frighten voters but animate her party's base -- privatization of health care, dismantling public education and restricting access to abortions.
Bankrolled by wealthy and powerful energy companies, Smith's party came to the game with resources. Yet there’s not much public concern about its source of money because little about the party's fundraising has been reported.
However, things are bound to get more difficult for Smith when her party starts picking candidates who are not already MLAs.
Unlike the established parties, the Alliance doesn't have a proven mechanism for choosing candidates. It must create a political machine from the ground up. To do this, it will draw on many Albertans with no experience in politics. So right from the get-go, the potential for cock-ups, ill discipline and confusion will be greater than in an established party like the Conservatives.
What's more, because the party appears to have a real chance at power, there will be plenty of interest in its local candidate nominations. From the Alliance's perspective, this is good and bad. Good, because hard-fought nomination races build excitement. Bad because it is bound to attract candidates from the party's far-right base, many of whom will be chosen and some of whom are sure to be pretty scary! Smith will find making these committed social conservatives behave themselves and sing from the same hymnbook like herding cats.
Thus the probability is high that at an awkward moment a Wildrose Alliance candidate will say what he or she really thinks – and perhaps what the Alliance leadership really thinks, too, but is too smart to say aloud. A moment of unvarnished right-wing honesty could be enough to sink the party's chances with a still-nervous electorate.
Moreover, sooner or later worrisome details about who is funding the party are likely to leak out. New election advertising legislation, passed in 2009, will prevent the Alliance's rich friends from ginning up a third-party "concerned Albertans" campaign to help them at this delicate moment.
Naturally, the government and the other opposition parties will seize any such embarrassing opportunities to hammer Smith and her candidates.
The danger for the new party will be even greater if the premier decides to head it off by calling an election earlier than 2012, as he may well do if he sees an opportunity to snatch back a victory, forcing them to hurry nominations.
These challenges will be the true test of Smith's mettle as leader. If she can overcome them, she will probably be Alberta's first woman premier and the province will lurch further to the right. If she can't, she will merely be a footnote in history.
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