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Civic election hangover: The future still looks bleak for a progressive Alberta

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Popular wisdom in the first hours after the Edmonton civic election quickly sprouted around the idea the results were a big humiliation for the right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party.

The logic went like this: The Wildrose Alliance under Leader Danielle Smith stepped into the municipal fray to keep Edmonton's City Centre Airport open. Edmontonians elected a progressive mayor and a council mostly committed to closing the airport and redeveloping the site. Ergo, the election was a big loss for the Wildrose Alliance.

"The results are a slap in the face, not just to the Envision Edmonton airport campaign, but also, more obliquely, to the Wildrose Alliance, which had tried to make the airport issue its entrée into Edmonton politics," opined Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons the day after the election.

"The significant increase voter turnout in the big cities shows that people want change and it is not good enough to merely offer a choice between very right-wing Progressive Conservative Party agenda and extremely right wing Wildrose Alliance Party agenda," wrote Ken Chapman in his excellent blog.

While there are some signs of hope to be found in the municipal election results in both Calgary and Edmonton, alas, both these fine commentators are likely greatly overstating the case for optimism.

Simons's analysis in particular hangs on the notion the Wildrose Alliance’s principal objective in Edmonton really was to save the City Centre Airport and see pro-airfield candidates become the victors on Monday.

Not that the Wildrose Alliance would have minded such an outcome, of course, but to frame the election result that way is to misunderstand the party's true strategy. Actually saving the airport was never the principal Wildrose objective or even a vague goal.

On the contrary, the Wildrose Alliance's main aim remains simply to boost its support in the Capital Region by 3 per cent or a little more, which is what it needs to achieve its secondary objective of getting New Democrats or Alberta Liberals to win in a part of the province where the Alliance itself is unlikely to gain many seats in a provincial general election.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, the more non-Conservative MLAs elected in the Capital Region -- even if they are New Democrats, members a party diametrically opposed to the ideology of the Alliance -- the better the Wildrose Alliance's overall position in Alberta.

The more New Democrats and Alberta Liberals that are elected in the Edmonton area, the more likely it is the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach will sink into a minority. With the Wildrose Alliance much stronger in southern Alberta, this outcome increases the chance the Alliance can become the Official Opposition. Indeed, although this is unlikely for the moment, if the Alliance picked up sufficient rural support, it could even become the government.

Since the Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance are essentially in accord on ideology, moreover, such an outcome increases the chance a shaken minority Conservative Party would drop Stelmach and elect a new leader even farther to the right, say, Finance Minister Ted Morton. In such circumstances, the Conservatives at the very least would ape far-right Wildrose policy nostrums, including more privatization and vicious legislative attacks on the rights of working people, which are the ultimate goals of the people financing both parties.

So if Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples is right, as the Wildrose Alliance surely hopes, and the civic election result means "bitterness over issue will continue to fracture Edmonton," that is precisely the best outcome Smith could reasonably hope for.

Indeed, Wildrose Alliance strategists are far more likely to be concerned by the civic election outcome in Calgary, which shows a genuine appetite among voters there for new faces and progressive policies. However, Calgary's long history of electing popular liberal mayors while overwhelmingly supporting far-right provincial and federal politicians suggests we should be cautious about reading too much into the election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Cowtown.

Meanwhile, with few new faces or ideas among the Liberals and New Democrats, both those parties remain mired at their historic minimum support levels and focused on their traditional election strategies. The upstart Alberta Party may be doing something, but it remains very unclear what that might be or if the party can do anything useful in time for a provincial election. More likely it will achieve nothing more than to further fracture an already fractured progressive vote.

The mainstream media and the Alberta chattering classes for obvious reasons will continue to frame the issue as a contest between the Conservatives on the far right and the Wildrose Alliance on the even-farther right. To paraphrase Chapman, "the single-minded media focus" is certain to remain "on the culture wars between the right wing parties for political power."

Add to all this the danger many progressive voters will be tempted to cast ballots for the Wildrose Alliance out of mischief and fatigue with generations of Conservative mismanagement, and the political landscape in Alberta remains bleak for those of us who hope for genuinely progressive change at the provincial level in Alberta.

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

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