Elections have highs and lows. Wednesday night in Alberta, nobody soared higher than Rachel Notley and the NDP. They won 53 seats (gain of 49) to form the first New Democratic government in Alberta's history. And nobody sank deeper than Jim Prentice and the Progressive Conservative Party. They won only 11 seats (drop of 59) as they lost an election for the first time since 1971.
It is possible, though, that the PCs may have lost more than just an election, and more than just a political dynasty. This may very well be the beginning of the end of the Alberta PC Party.
In most places, a party wins an election and forms a government, and then it loses an election and sits in opposition for a few years, but then returns again to form a government in the future. But not in Alberta. The PCs for years have feared that losing an election would mean the end of their party.
This is partially due to the unique political history of the province. Albertans elect dynasties and when they fall, they never come back again. There were three governments that preceded the PC dynasty. The Liberals ran the province from 1905-1921, but have never won power again. The United Farmers of Alberta governed the province from 1921-1935 and quickly disappeared after losing – even disbanding as a political party in 1939. Social Credit ran Alberta from 1935-1971, but once it was defeated it moved quickly into obscurity.
This may be a key characteristic of Alberta political history, but former governing political parties have disappeared in other provinces, too. The Saskatchewan PCs, which governed the province through the eighties, slowly morphed into the Saskatchewan Party after a devastating 1991 loss. The B.C. Social Credit Party, which governed the province from 1952-1991 (with a small break from 1972-1975), was eventually replaced by the Liberal party as the conservative option in British Columbia.
Another reason to consider that this could be the end of the PC Party is that there is a second conservative party in Alberta.
Consider the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. They were also a political dynasty from 1943-1985. But ten years after losing power, the Ontario PCs won a majority government under Mike Harris in 1995. The Ontario PCs were able to win power again because they were the only conservative party in the province.
But the Alberta PCs face a competing conservative party in Wildrose, which won 20 seats Wednesday night to form the official opposition. Could the Wildrose Party ultimately replace the PCs and become the sole Alberta conservative party? This would be a delicious irony given the disastrous floor crossing to the PCs by former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her colleagues last December.
In order to avoid this fate, the PCs have many challenges ahead.
First, the party has no leader (Jim Prentice resigned Wednesday night) and no obvious successor. Second, the party has been reduced to a largely Calgary caucus (only two seats outside of the city). Third, the PCs are likely broke, having spent plenty of money in a losing effort, and with little ability to raise funds now that it no longer controls the levers of government. Fourth, the glue that has held the PCs together as a big tent party for so long was power. Now that they have lost power, what keeps the PCs together?
Finally, the NDP is expected to conduct a thorough audit of Alberta's books. I predict that all sorts of surprises will emerge of things that the PCs have kept hidden while they were in government. This will continue to generate political stories and maintain the disgust that many voters currently have towards the PCs.
Appreciating these consequences of losing explains why the PCs were motivated to run a successful fear campaign against the Wildrose in 2012, and to attempt, albeit in a losing cause, an even more fear-mongering campaign against the NDP in 2015.The members of the Alberta PCs knew that losing an election might also lead to the loss of their party.
Duane Bratt is professor in the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University.