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This Is Not a Drill: Alberta Votes in NDP Majority, Ending Conservatives' 44-year Run in Power

Well, that just happened.
May 6, 2015, 1:29am

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley talking to a potential voter, as politicians are wont to do in campaign season. Photo via NDP website

There are few phrases yet to make it into print, but this may be one of them: as expected, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) have formed a majority government in the province, crushing the ruling Progressive Conservatives.

Polls closed at 8 p.m MST. Within an hour, all news outlets (CBC, Global, CTV) had called the election in the favour of the social democratic party, led by Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley. The Wildrose Party will form Official Opposition, while the PCs have clocked in at a distant third. The election (called a year before required by Alberta's Election Act) will result in a change of government for the first time since 1971.

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"Obviously it seems the votes have coalesced around the NDP and they were able to get the vote out," says Dave Cournoyer, a popular political blogger. "It was very clear the NDP had momentum, the question was how far could that momentum take them. Tonight, we're finding out that momentum has taken the NDP to what appears to be a majority government in Alberta."

Jim Prentice – former premier of the province – managed to maintain his seat in Calgary-Foothills but immediately stepped down as leader of the PCs in addition to resigning from his responsibilities as MLA. Many high-ranking cabinet ministers also fell, including Stephen Mandel (Edmonton-Whitemud), Thomas Lukaszuk (Edmonton-Castle Downs), Jonathan Denis (Calgary-Acadia), Robin Campbell (West Yellowhead) and Kyle Fawcett (Calgary-Klein). Alberta Party leader Greg Clark won Calgary-Elbow, beating out controversial Education Minister Gordon Dirks. David Swann, interim leader of the Liberals and candidate for Calgary-Mountain View, also won his race, making him the only one of his party to maintain a seat.

Few could have anticipated such an outcome when the writ was dropped on April 7. The Wildrose Party was decimated in mid-December when nine MLAs (including party leader Danielle Smith) crossed the floor to the PCs. The Liberals had bled seats since the mid-2000s. Similarly, the NDP oscillated between two and four spots in the Legislature since 1997. But when Alberta's voters change their mind, they do in spectacular, 1993-federal-election style, throwing out the governing party with little grace or regret.

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In this case, there seems to be a plethora of reasonable excuse for such a startling collection decision: in a single month, the PCs have been slammed with numerous PR blunders including bribery allegations, suspicious disqualifications in nomination races, and a choice assortment of patronizing comments (which lead to a series of satirical Twitter hashtags, including #MathIsHard, #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans, and #BuddyYouAreBeingSetUp). All of that seems to have exacerbated dissatisfaction with the party created by the Wildrose defection, the controversial March 26 budget and early election call, leading some to suggest the NDP win (and accompanying Wildrose surge) was more about dissatisfaction with the PCs than an endorsement of the two other party's policies.

Paul Fairie, political science professor at the University of Calgary, notes "in Alberta we have a political culture where we aren't interested in partisan competition and politics isn't about a competition of ideas, and are more interested in essentially electing a management-style government."

The NDP picked up enormous support from the younger and college-educated crowd; Frank Graves, president of polling firm EKOS Research Associates, notes that he's noticed such "fault lines" between voter blocs before, but never in such "vivid terms" as in his company's final survey prior to the election. He also says that the presence of a strong centre-left coalition combined with incredible support from the labour movement were added factors that combined with the well-educated vote into a victory for the NDP.

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The NDP also managed to tone down the aspects of their platform that would typically scare off centrist voters: Fairie reiterates the party's "definitely not left-wing." Reversing cuts to education and healthcare was by no means a controversial suggestion. Suggesting that the non-renewable resource royalty regime be reviewed wasn't unique to the NDP either, although some energy company CEOs aren't particularly fond of the idea. Notley also made a concerted effort throughout the campaign to distinguish her party's policy on pipelines from that of the federal party.

"The NDP voters are quite clearly a coalition of frustrated progressive voters who had no real voice or option," Graves says. "You see that we've got a traffic-light coalition of NDP federal voters with Liberal and Green federal voters."

Graves suggests the win may also have a significant impact in federal circles. Around 70 percent of Canadian voters currently support a centre-left option, he says, although that may not translate into a loss for the Conservatives given the current electoral system and potential vote split between Liberals and NDP. However, this victory may serve to add to the conversation at the very least: with the win, the province now features two notably progressive mayors of its two largest cities (Don Iveson in Edmonton and Naheed Nenshi in Calgary) and a social-democrat provincial government.

"It's a New Alberta," concludes Graves. It's almost a Trojan horse-like victory here, with all these folks coming to Alberta have transformed it into a much more cosmopolitan, progressive place."

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