United Conservative Party: Merger season is over, now playoffs have begun

Wildrose and Progressive Conservative party members voted overwhelmingly on Saturday, July 22,  to unite Alberta’s right-wing parties.

Now the real competition begins as wannabe leaders of the United Conservative Party (UCP) jockey for position, which one political observer suspects will be a much more intense battle.

Mount Royal University professor David Taras was surprised with the low voter turnout for the UCP merger. But, he thinks people may have been saving themselves for the brutal leadership race to come.

Taras says that the 95 per cent “yes” vote from both parties wasn’t a surprise, but the low numbers of party members voting piqued his interest.

“It was really shocking considering that there was an ability for people to be members of both parties to vote twice,” said Taras.

Wildrose had a 57.7 per cent voter turnout, which amounts to around 24,598 votes cast. The Progressive Conservatives (PC) had a 55 per cent voter turnout, or 27,060 votes cast by party members.

“It’s tiny. It’s peripheral. It’s marginal,” Taras said in an interview July 26.

Taras believes that the low turnout “portrays weakness.”

“There’s no mass party there. There’s no mass following. There’s no mass populist vote. This was very marginal … [with PC leader Jason] Kenney being out there for a year-and-a-half [campaigning] — and then you get 25,000 voters? It doesn’t say very much.”

The playoffs

Taras suggests many party members did not show up to vote because they predicted the outcome — a political merger necessary to defeat Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party government in the next election.

“People may be saving their money for the second round. Maybe people thought this is a foregone conclusion and I’m going to save my efforts for the big game — for the playoffs. That may be a factor, too. It wasn’t the playoffs yet. Many people saw what the outcome would be. But, this playoff round — the finals — will be a lot more interesting for a lot more people.”

Both party leaders, the PCs’ Jason Kenney and Wildrose’s Brian Jean, have announced they will be running for the UCP leadership. So has PC strategist Doug Schweitzer while others, such as Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt, have shown interest in running.

Intense

Brian Jean and Jason Kenney on May 18, the day both party leaders signed an agreement to work towards merging parties. Photo courtesy of Wildrose Party

Taras thinks the battle between Kenney and Jean will be “just bruising.”

For now, a lot of focus is on Kenney and Jean. Both have attributes that could help them win the leadership race.

When asked about Kenney, Taras said, “I think his natural skill is to be an organizer. I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

But there could possibly be more support for Jean.

“What Jean has going for him is that he is more popular than Kenney. He has this next-door neighbour sense to him. And the Wildrose people who are comfortable with him are going to be on fire for him.”

But, he says, “if it becomes too bruising, people may look for another alternative.”

There has been a lot of speculation, but there is still a lot of time to see how the race plays out until the leadership vote on Oct. 28.

One thing Taras knows for sure is that the race will be “Titanic. I think this will be a really rough struggle. Very rugged. No holds barred. No love lost. And down to the wire probably.”