Jim Prentice has been Alberta's Premier for only seven months, a tumultuous time of plunging oil prices that saw the province end its run as Canada's economic engine.
Stubbornly low oil prices have left finances in a mess, and the economy is expected to sputter through the rest of the year. Only two weeks ago, Mr. Prentice introduced the first budget in decades to raise provincial income taxes, and will run a record $5-billion deficit.
On Tuesday, the Progressive Conservative Leader plunged the province into a 28-day election campaign, calling for Albertans to give him a mandate on May 5 to wean the government's finances off oil.
"Albertans deserve a government that tells its citizens the straight facts, even if the news is bad," he said, kicking off his campaign in Edmonton. "I am asking Albertans for a mandate to implement the changes this province needs so badly."
Mr. Prentice is unlikely to make bold promises over the next four weeks. He has ruled out large spending cuts or further tax increases, including the introduction of a provincial sales tax. Instead, he is warning against the "extreme ideas and ideology" of the Wildrose Party and the New Democrats. The Tory Leader will focus on defending his March 26 budget and an accompanying 10-year plan. After balancing the budget within three years, Mr. Prentice wants to start depositing half of the province's energy royalties into a savings account by the end of the decade.
Travelling to his boyhood home of Grande Cache on Tuesday, Mr. Prentice said the town's struggle with boom-and-bust cycles was an inspiration for his plan.
Built around a coal mine, Grande Cache has flirted with extinction at several points in its nearly five-decade history when global coal prices plunged and the town's few thousand residents faced a mine closing.
While Grande Cache's fortunes have improved through tourism and the construction of a prison, the crises marked Mr. Prentice in his youth. He is promising a middle-road strategy for the entire province, based on small tax increases and limited cuts to government services.
"This is about the future of our province – we're in uncharted territory," he said. "Tough choices need to be made."
Alberta has a fixed-election law that stipulates a vote must be held in the three months before June 1, 2016. However, the law allows the province's lieutenant-governor to dissolve the legislature when asked.
After a short meeting with his cabinet early Tuesday morning, Mr. Prentice asked Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell to call the election. Mr. Prentice then travelled in his new blue campaign bus to Edmonton's west end, his first stop. The Tory leader was accompanied by a small entourage: his wife, an aide and two communications staffers.
At dissolution, the PCs had 70 seats, the Wildrose and Liberals five each, the NDP had four, two seats were vacant and there was one independent.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she is running to end the government's nearly 44 years in power. While few expect Mr. Prentice will not lead the Tories to their 13th consecutive majority, polls indicate Ms. Notley could vault her party to Official Opposition status for the first time in two decades.
"It's clear that Albertans feel let down by their government," she said. "We can choose to say that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday."
Brian Jean, the newly elected Leader of the Wildrose, currently the Opposition, promised no new floor-crossings from his party. The 17-member caucus was reduced last December, when leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor with eight other MLAs.
Mr. Jean said new Wildrose MLAs will have to sign a contract that includes a $100,000 penalty for defecting.
This campaign comes after a wild period for Alberta politics since the 2012 election, in which Alison Redford held on as PC premier.
Ms. Redford was forced to step down in early 2014 amid outrage over some of her expense claims, which included using government planes for personal matters.
Stepping up as the new Progressive Conservative Leader, Mr. Prentice went about distancing himself from the previous premier. The mass floor-crossings to the government that followed and plunge in oil prices shook up the dynamic in the legislature.
While his popularity has slumped since the budget, Mr. Prentice faces no provincewide challenger.
Jim Prentice has not had a smooth half-year in the premier's office – struggling with the crash in oil prices, foisting new taxes upon Albertans and then launching a campaign a year ahead of a fixed election date. But the former federal minister, who left Bay Street to take over the Alberta Progressive Conservatives' leadership after scandal forced out Alison Redford, still seems to be leading a charmed political life. Despite a couple of recent polls showing the Tories' lead eroding, Mr. Prentice's successful luring of former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and more than half her caucus, combined with a massive money and organizational advantage, leaves little apparent threat to yet another PC majority.
After Wildrose's meltdown in late 2014, the NDP suddenly found itself with a real shot to become the Tories' main opposition. That status is partly by default but also because Rachel Notley, who has been an MLA since 2008 but assumed the New Democrats' leadership only in October, has brought some new energy to her party. A lawyer and former union activist, Ms. Notley seems to have particular traction in her hometown of Edmonton, where the NDP has most of its potential for gains.
Coming from outside its caucus, Brian Jean is the closest Wildrose could get to a fresh face and a bit of polish after the bizarre and disastrous end of the Danielle Smith era. Mr. Jean, who served as Conservative MP for the federal riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca until early last year, has had little time to pick up his party's pieces since winning its leadership on March 28. He is also dealing with personal tragedy, having lost his 24-year-old son to lymphoma last month. He has set modest expectations for the campaign, conceding Wildrose probably isn't competing for government and would likely be satisfied with keeping Official Opposition status.
After taking over from Raj Sherman this year, Liberal Leader David Swann seems to have one main job: keeping alive a party that has only two incumbent MLAs running for re-election. The other job is openly calling for mergers with other centre-left parties. Of those potential merger partners, Greg Clark's Alberta Party is the only one that seems to have much chance of capitalizing on the recent flux in Alberta politics, but it would likely be satisfied with claiming a single seat in Calgary.
With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary