If the majority of Alberta's Progressive Conservative government caucus and party establishment get their way, a vote to elect a new leader will be over Saturday. And the person they believe can best lift a storied political franchise from the depths of one of the most turbulent periods in its history is former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice.
Mr. Prentice has been the front-runner all along in the campaign to replace ousted leader and former premier Alison Redford. Because of solid political and corporate credentials and status as a perceived outsider – untainted by the many scandals that have rocked the Tories over the last couple of years – Mr. Prentice has been the choice of many to try to reverse the party's dismal fortunes.
And there is a lot at stake. This week the Conservatives became the longest-serving government in Canadian history, having now ruled Alberta for 43 years and seven days. The party is used to power and does not relish the thought of giving it up. Whoever wins the leadership has 18 months to turn things around – and there is a long to-do list.
Front-runners have a dismal record in Tory leadership campaigns. Yet party sources said this week that Mr. Prentice had sold – or given away – far more memberships during the leadership campaign than his two rivals – Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver. "Barring some absolutely bizarre, unforeseen development, this will be over on the first ballot Saturday night," said a senior party source. "And Prentice will be the leader."
This is the first time the party has elected a leader using online voting. The new system has been highly controversial and has invited lots of criticism about how easily it can be gamed. The party has defended the electronic voting procedure, saying that only those people whose names have been verified against the provincial voters list will be eligible to cast a ballot. Still, on Friday when voting opened, there were soon reports of glitches.
It remains to be seen whether those problems compromise the final result. If Mr. Prentice does not receive 50 per cent plus one of all votes cast Saturday, the person with the fewest number of votes will drop out of the race and there will be a run-off between the two remaining candidates on Sept. 20.
Regardless of whatever "outsider" appeal Mr. Prentice may have, trying to rescue a party that has seemed so intent on driving itself from power would appear to be a fruitless exercise. Yet despite all of the party's recent foibles and the massive amount of political baggage it has accumulated after so many years in power, recent polls have not been as dispiriting as one would expect.
A Leger poll done for the Calgary Herald this week showed that if an election were held now, 33 per cent would vote Wildrose, while 29 per cent would vote Tory. That is not as wide a spread as many would have thought, given the unprecedented level of negative coverage the Tories have received since the last election. It may be that antipathy towards the Conservatives has bottomed out, a notion that offers Mr. Prentice some hope.
But before Mr. Prentice, or whoever ends up leading Alberta's governing party, begins the long, humbling process of mending fences with the public, he will first have to repair the enormous damage that has been done to the Conservative Party structure in the last while. The level of party infighting, especially among the government caucus, has never been higher. The Alison Redford era ignited an internecine war that has played itself out on the front pages of the newspaper and on the evening news.
It would seem that Mr. Prentice, given the distance he has been from most of the scandals and back-stabbing and clandestine campaigns to destroy people's reputations inside the party, would be in the best position to press the restart button. And should he be crowned the new leader Saturday, it's almost certain he will waste little time in giving the party a fresh look that includes many fresh faces as well.