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Wildrose Leader Brian Jean announced he plans ‘to be Alberta’s next premier.’ His entry into a possible race was welcomed by Jason Kenney, the Progressive Conservative leadership front-runner.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta's right-wing Wildrose Party, has effectively entered the leadership race for a conservative party that does not yet exist, squaring off against the architect of the unite-the-right plan in the province.

Mr. Jean, in a video released Thursday, said that, should Wildrose members "approve a unity agreement" with the Progressive Conservatives, he will step down from his current post and run for the leadership of a proposed united party. Mr. Jean's declaration is a direct challenge to Jason Kenney, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister with ambitions to essentially merge the PCs and Wildrose into a new party under his leadership.

Mr. Jean has, generally, supported reuniting the PC and Wildrose parties. His comments Thursday, however, are the clearest indication he believes Mr. Kenney's proposal is the best way to beat the ruling New Democratic Party in the next election.

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"Let me be clear on this point – I plan to be Alberta's next premier," Mr. Jean said in his video.

Wildrose members, Mr. Jean said, have told him they support pursuing unity, on the condition that they are able to maintain their "principles and grassroots way of doing things."

Mr. Kenney is the front-runner in the PC leadership contest and is campaigning to the right of his opponents and on a platform to join hands with the Wildrose.

Mr. Jean's announcement is an acknowledgment that the Wildrose Party's days are numbered, said Duane Bratt, the chair of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University.

"This is a recognition that, not only will Jason Kenney win the [PC] leadership, but a merged party will happen," he said.

"Mr. Kenney is winning the PC leadership as a Wildroser, with the support of members of the Wildrose. It's an unusual decision by Mr. Jean – I just don't see how he can win," said Mr. Bratt of a possible race to lead Alberta's conservative movement.

Wildrose originated as a protest party about 10 years ago, splintering from its PC cousins. After years on the fringe, it is now Alberta's Official Opposition, controlling 22 seats in the legislature. It is at the height of its electoral power and holds a number of key positions in house committees. Mr. Kenney and others argue the NDP squeaked into power because the Wildrose and the PCs split the vote in the last election.

Mr. Kenney, speaking to reporters Thursday, said he has not spoken with Mr. Jean in "some time," but welcomes his decision.

"I've said from the beginning that I hope Brian would run for that leadership," Mr. Kenney said. "I hope other Albertans will too."

Mr. Kenney is not a member of the legislature. He launched his PC leadership campaign and merger plan before the PCs even declared the contest open. The PCs will select a new leader on March 18. Mr. Kenney faces three challengers and the trio sit to his right.

Earlier Thursday, PC leadership candidate Richard Starke, a staunch critic of Mr. Kenney's unity plan, reversed course and said he, too, would seek some kind of accommodation with the Wildrose, although he didn't give details on what that might look like.

The other two PC candidates, Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson and former PC MLA Stephen Khan, are running not to merge but rather rebuild the party, which finished third in the last election after governing Alberta for more than four decades.

Mr. Kenney's campaign has polarized the PCs. Critics say he is moving the party away from the political mainstream by embracing the Wildrose brand of social conservatism.

Two other PC leadership candidates, Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans, quit the race last year, saying progressive voices were being forced out. Ms. Jansen, a Calgary MLA, has since joined Premier Rachel Notley's caucus.

Mr. Jean's comments revealed scars that remain from fights on the right.

"Our party must never be a home for cronies who want to use government and politics for their own personal gain," he said. "In the last election, Albertans soundly rejected those who put personal ambition ahead of principles."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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