Manitoba's governing New Democrats are wrestling with a political puzzle — how to hold a leadership race in which one candidate is the premier who appears intent on staying put during the campaign.
Premier Greg Selinger "absolutely has an advantage" over potential opponents, political scientist Royce Koop from the University of Manitoba said Wednesday.
"He has the power of the purse, as the Americans say. He can spend government money in such a way as to assist his leadership campaign.
"On the one hand, it's a bit much to expect a premier to resign every time he is challenged for the party leadership ... but on the other hand, there certainly will be an advantage to the premier in this race."
Selinger has been facing an open revolt from senior party members after leading the party to low polling numbers not seen in more than a decade. He ran into opposition over his decision last year to raise the provincial sales tax — something he specifically said he would not do during the last election campaign.
Five cabinet ministers publicly challenged his leadership and resigned last week. On the weekend, Selinger called on the NDP executive to organize a leadership contest — not a review — at the party's annual convention in March.
That means his opponents can no longer hope that he would leave on his own if support in a review were low. Instead, they will probably have to put up a leadership candidate of their own to run against him.
Party officials are still working out details of the race, but Selinger said Wednesday he intends on staying on as premier until the vote, while keeping the leadership issue separate.
"I've made great pains to separate the two issues and I think that's the appropriate thing to do."
In recent days, Selinger has refused to discuss the leadership race while at the legislature or during official government functions. Reporters have had to try to get the premier outside of business hours for any questions about the party leadership.
Selinger said his choice for a leadership contest is based on a little-used provision in the NDP constitution that allows anyone to challenge the party leader at the annual convention. No one has tried to mount such a challenge since the NDP took power in 1999.
"It's always been possible for somebody to collect signatures and get a nomination to run against the leader. And that's all I'm proposing is that I stand for leader at the convention."
The upcoming battle is uncharted territory for the NDP. During the last leadership race in 2009, Selinger was finance minister when he threw his hat in the ring. He and his two competitors resigned their cabinet portfolios on an interim basis. Andrew Swan stepped down from the competitiveness, training and trade portfolio and Steve Ashton was replaced as emergency measures minister.
At the time, departing premier Gary Doer said having ministers temporarily resign ensured "a level playing field."
The leadership challenge comes as Selinger prepares for a throne speech Nov. 20 that will outline the government's agenda for the coming year and open a two-week fall sitting of the legislature.
The NDP executive has scheduled an emergency meeting Saturday to start sorting out details of a leadership vote.
Under the party's constitution, the party is not bound to accept the premier's call for a full leadership contest at the annual convention. The provincial council can call a separate convention on leadership at any time, as can a majority of the party's 57 constituency associations.