The chances of Albertans electing a centre-left government on May 5 are going up because the best option for progressives who vote strategically in many seats just became easier to pick. The difficulties that the provincial Liberal Party was having in finding candidates in a majority of constituencies throughout the first week of the election abated a bit as the deadline for nominations arrived on Friday, April 17. The party jumped from 28 to 56 candidates. But that still left 31 seats without a Liberal candidate. Perhaps the Liberals wanted to provide NDP leader Rachel Notley who was celebrating her birthday that day with a present from an unlikely source.
Some of the seats in question are a wasteland for all progressive parties. But a significant number are quite winnable when there is only one progressive party in the running or at a minimum only one of the NDP and the Liberals. A few of these are ridings where the Liberals arguably had better prospects than the NDP, e.g. Edmonton-McClung, or an equal chance to do well (Banff-Cochrane) and many more are ridings where the combination of NDP and Liberal votes could surpass the projected votes for either the Tories or Wildrose. Even Jan Brown, the Calgary pollster who rarely provides cheerful news for left-of-centre folks, noted in today’s Calgary Herald that this election was fluid enough that it was possible that wins by the NDP in seats where they did not have to compete with the Liberals might propel the NDP into Official Opposition status or even into government. But Brown cautioned that while a majority of Liberal voters name the NDP as their second favourite party, a large minority would vote for a right-wing party rather than vote NDP. Interestingly, NDP voters return the favour. Clearly, not all the voters for progressive parties think of themselves as progressives who could never vote for right-wingers. But it is important to note that just as many voters for each of the two conservative parties also prefer one of the left-wing parties as their second choice. And there is increasing evidence that many of the people, particularly in Calgary, who voted Wildrose in 2012, did so more as a protest against PC rule than because of support of Wildrose policies. This time many of those same voters are looking at the NDP as a place to park anti-establishment votes that they gave to Wildrose last time. Meanwhile, many former Liberal voters who voted Tory last time to stop Wildrose, hollowing out their former preferred party in the process, ironically are joining those one-day Wildrosers in lurching leftwards. That is made easier for them because the NDP’s promises are moderate, though David Swann (who knows better) is joining Premier Prentice (who also knows better) in attacking the NDP as an “extremist” party. Dr. Swann, who was candid in the past about his party’s policies largely having converged with those of the NDP, should check out the NDP’s promises this time and make clear what, if any differences, his party and the NDP have. In my view, their differences are minor. It is to the credit of some Liberal constituency associations such as Calgary-Greenway that they made a conscious choice not to put forward a candidate this time, reckoning that they could not win and that they did not want to split the progressive vote.
Seats that suddenly look like likely wins for the NDP now include Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, Edmonton-McClung, and Banff-Cochrane while Sherwood Park, Strathcona-Sherwood Park, West Yellowhead, Calgary-Greenway, and Calgary-Fish Creek move from impossible for progressives to win to decent possibilities for progressive wins.
Many of the 28 seats where the Liberals did announce last-minute candidates are Edmonton and Calgary seats where the party’s late entry will not likely impress voters. These appear to be unwilling candidates who agreed to help out their party in its hour of need at the last second. It is doubtful that any of them intends to campaign much and even if they wanted to, their party is broke and the time that is required to recruit volunteers, order lawn signs and election literature is greater than the time available to these candidates to make up for missing the first two weeks of a four-week campaign. That does not mean that the Liberal Party of Alberta is about to be wiped out. Change Alberta’s research suggests that the Liberals are well-placed to win all five seats that they currently hold in the legislature and that they may win a few other seats as well, such as Red Deer North. Nor does it seem likely that on its own the NDP, despite its amazing surge in this election, could win enough seats to eke out a majority in the legislature on its own. But the combination of a large bloc of NDP seats plus 5 or 6 Liberal seats plus Greg Clark in Elbow could indeed add up to a majority.
Banff-Cochrane provides an example of why the Liberal inability to come up with a candidate in certain seats might result in a progressive being elected in a seat where progressives have never been elected before. This excerpt from the Banff-Cochrane recommendation on the “winnable candidates” section of the Change Alberta website encapsulates the issue.
In 2008, just short of 49 percent of the votes in that constituency went to the Liberal, Green, and NDP candidates. That percentage fell to 21 percent in 2012, but for the same reason that the progressive vote seemed to collapse in most constituencies: fear of the Wildrose Party that drove many voters to Alison Redford’s pseudo-progressive swan song.
The leading party for progressive voters in Banff-Cochrane for many years has been the Liberal Party. But the Liberals failed to nominate a candidate for the riding for the upcoming election. That creates a real opening for NDP candidate Cameron Westhead to win Banff-Cochrane…
The math from 308.com a few days ago explains why. Basing their projection on the changing fortunes of the political parties in the region as measured in various polls, 308.com projected that Wildrose would win 30.7 percent of the vote, the Tories, 24 percent, the New Democrats, 20.5 percent, the Liberals, 20.3 percent, and the Alberta Party, 4.4 percent. Clearly, if the NDs and the Liberals were going head to head, neither was going to win unless one managed to extract a great number of votes from the other. But with one of those parties not in the race, a unified progressive vote for the NDP in Banff-Cochrane could take this seat away from the Progressive Conservatives for the first time since the Tories formed the provincial government in 1971. Sure, the Alberta Party is in the running too and would like to go after some of those loose Liberal votes. But it is starting from such a low base that all the AP could achieve would be to split the progressive vote enough that Wildrose wins the election.”
Dr. Alvin Finkel is professor emeritus of History at Athabasca University and chair of Change Alberta.