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Opinion: Alberta UCP Leadership Race Tests Appeal of Extreme Ideas

Polity

By Shridhar Patel

It’s an interesting phenomenon in democracies. An extremist wins the primaries or any smaller election in which select groups of people — likely more extreme than the average voter — are voting. Then, the extremist, in order to win a general election, suddenly has a difficult choice to make. 

Does the extremist double down on proposed policies to avoid alienating existing supporters, but do not draw in the new voters they need to win the election? Or does the extremist compromise to move to the political centre to broaden his/her appeal? 

While this can and has happened in Canadian politics, it will be interesting to see this phenomenon play out in Alberta between the UCP leadership race in October to the general Alberta election projected to be in May 2023.

Polls show that Albertans are concerned about affordability, economy, and healthcare, but UCP leadership candidates are prioritizing federal relations, equalization, and the pandemic response.

As of August 22, 2022, the UCP announced that the party has 123,915 official members, compared to the approximately 60,000 members it had before the leadership race. Since only UCP members are eligible to vote in the leadership race, most candidates are doubling down on the anti-Ottawa rhetoric, a topic that most UCP voters (but not necessarily, most Albertans) are concerned about. 

All three of the leading candidates – Danielle Smith, Brian Jean, and Travis Toews — have made provincial autonomy a cornerstone of their platform. While this will undoubtedly assist them with winning the support of certain UCP voters (and thus becoming Premier heading into the next election), their positions also threaten to handcuff them to ideas and policies sought by their deepest supporters, but not necessarily most Albertan voters. While politicians are not necessarily known for their integrity, flip-flopping on positions can contribute to a decline in trustworthiness, and perhaps, most importantly, a lost vote.

Unlike traditional two-round elections or primaries, the silver lining for the winner of the UCP leadership race is that they will have a stint in the Premier’s chair before the general election. The winner will enter the Legislative Assembly as the Premier of a party with a substantial majority, and thus, have considerable flexibility to enact their preferred policies. If the winner is able to make progress in achieving greater autonomy for Albertans, then they may not have to pivot to the center quite as hard. Additionally, most candidates in the leadership race have detailed their plans for economic and social support in response to concerns around affordability and inflation. 

The risk of leaning on extreme ideas is high. The UCP will go toe-to-toe against a re-invigorated NDP under the leadership of Rachel Notley, who remains highly favoured for offering solutions that Albertans prioritize.

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