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A jogger runs past campaign signs along River Valley Road in Edmonton, Alta., Oct. 17, 2010. Voters will head to the polls for municipal elections across Alberta on Oct. 18. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
A jogger runs past campaign signs along River Valley Road in Edmonton, Alta., Oct. 17, 2010. Voters will head to the polls for municipal elections across Alberta on Oct. 18. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Victory up for grabs in key Alberta municipal votes Add to ...

Two cities without an incumbent mayor, a wave of voter discontent and one race without a pollster - some of Monday's municipal elections in Alberta are going down to the wire.

The results are expected to shed light on a number of political trends in the province, including whether voters are looking for change (a threat to the long-governing provincial Progressive Conservatives) and to what extent social media and online campaigns can deliver success at the polls.

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Most interesting is Calgary, where a tight three-way race for the mayor's chair is widely considered too close to call. Ric McIver, a long-time alderman and fiscal hawk; Barb Higgins, a former CTV anchor; and Naheed Nenshi, an academic and consultant, are all seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Bronconnier. A win for Ms. Higgins or Mr. Nenshi could indicate a restless electorate seeking fresh blood.

Though the race is still up for grabs, "if I had to give an edge, I'd give it to McIver," said Duane Bratt, the chair of the political science department at Mount Royal University. Whoever wins will inherit a financial mess, a new and disjointed council, and a series of controversies over a lavish footbridge and a debate over the city-owned power company, EnMax.

"The challenge for all of them is what's going to happen after the election," Prof. Bratt said.

On the weekend, the Calgary Herald newspaper backed Mr. McIver in an editorial that also said the paper would prefer Mr. Nenshi to Ms. Higgins. The Calgary Sun endorsed Mr. Nenshi.

In Lethbridge, a city of 85,000, the lack of an incumbent has led to six people running for mayor and another 29 seeking a seat on council - one of the longest ballots in memory. Among the council candidates is the city's long-time go-to pollster, Faron Ellis, who has abandoned his typical duty so he can campaign, leaving the city in the dark as to who its front-runners are.

"The coffee house chatter is that there's a feeling it's time to turn over incumbent candidates," said Geoffrey Hale, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge. "Who knows whether the anti-incumbent sentiment that is out there will overcome the powers of incumbency? [With no pollster] we have no serious means of finding out until election day."

In Edmonton, Mayor Stephen Mandel is seeking his third term and is expected by many to win. He has six challengers, led by businessman David Dorward. Mr. Dorward is riding a wave of sentiment over the city's decision to close its municipal airport. A small faction of advocates sought a plebiscite on whether to keep the airport, but were rejected by the city clerk. As such, many may not show up to vote.

Is there a chance Mr. Mandel will be upset? "There's always a chance, but the answer's no," said Jim Lightbody, a veteran political scientist at the University of Alberta. He expects one or two incumbent councillors may be ousted by restless voters.

Elsewhere in the province, the current mayors of both Red Deer and Wood Buffalo, the municipality that includes Fort McMurray and the oil sands, are seeking re-election.

But most eyes will be focused on Calgary. Mr. McIver is expected to win if he can drive his conservative base to the polls. Ms. Higgins will win if she can position herself as a moderate, cash in on her position as an outsider, and capture a wave of opposition to Mr. McIver, who is known as "Dr. No" from his time on council.

Mr. Nenshi will win if his popularity among young people translates into votes, and if social media is any indicator - he has far more Facebook supporters than the other candidates combined. But his opponents don't like his chances.

"Frankly, I'm not buying Naheed's support. I won't buy it until the day after. His demographic is all wrong," said Sam Armstrong, Mr. McIver's communications director and a veteran campaigner for Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Mr. Nenshi shrugged off the assessment.

"We know that people who are supporting me are the most devoted supporters out there," he said.

An argument with Calgary's police chief seemed to boost Mr. Nenshi's support; similarly, Ms. Higgins may benefit from a terse television debate Thursday. "I think it helped her," Prof. Bratt of Mount Royal University said. "She went head to head once she realized it wasn't a puff piece, it was a street fight."

Turnout is predicted to spike to more than 40 per cent in Calgary, well up from the past two elections. About 23,000 people voted in advance polling, a 150-per-cent jump over 2007 figures.

"We know that this is a tight, tight, tight race," Mr. Nenshi said.

 

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