The Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership campaign has produced some unusual results.
One candidate, Sandra Jansen, left the party to become a New Democrat MLA. Jason Kenney makes a better fit with the Wildrose party but is running as a PC. His campaign is often referred to in the media as a “juggernaut,” implying there isn't really much of a race.
And the whole drawn-out event is less a leadership vote than a vote on whether to merge the PC and Wildrose parties.
Kenney's commitment to a merger has been the only standout idea to emerge from the campaign. There's been no real indication of how a PC government would generate growth or balance the budget in the absence of much higher oil and gas prices.
All in all, it's been surprising and underwhelming.
The province is waiting only to see whether Kenney wins and tries to merge the parties, or Vermilion-Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke wins and keeps the PC party as a separate entity.
Yet there's much to consider.
Personal factors are in play. Starke is a veterinarian and can go back to that work. Kenney has become a career politician and his options appear weak: follow former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith into media work; latch on with some quasi-political think tank; or, return to the grind of running to become an MP in a federal opposition party led by someone else.
The bigger issues involve the structure of Alberta's political parties.
The appeal of a “unite the right” movement rests on the Wildrose's demonstrated capacity to raise money and deliver a strong vote outside Calgary and Edmonton.
But Wildrose supporters left the PC party because of genuine differences. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is no easy task.
The problem — no matter how often Kenney denies it — is that a merger would be a reverse takeover of the PC party by the Wildrose. That was underlined by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean's recent surprise offer to support a merger and run for the leadership of the new entity, which he said should be based on Wildrose principles. It's a fairly desperate ploy for him. The guy who sparked the merger movement would have a much better chance at the leadership than the guy who got dragged into supporting the idea.
The reasons for a merger go beyond merely trying to win the next election.
When Alison Redford led the PCs back into government in 2012 she proved that they could win without the Wildrose. That could easily happen again. A middle-of-the-road PC party taking about 38% to 39% of the popular vote would usually win the majority of seats in the legislature.
Starke's proposal to run a co-ordinated campaign with the Wildrose suggests he and many PC members have given up hope, however. It looks as if the PCs are demoralized. They are apparently succumbing to the same defeatism that wore down the Liberals; the New Democrats are in government because they never gave up, even when they had ample reason to be discouraged.
What are we left with?
A merger is fundamentally a way for the Wildrose to get into power as the controlling faction in a new party. Its supporters discovered they could not win on their own. They were extremely unhappy about the PC attempt under Prentice to absorb Wildrose MLAs as junior partners. Now they are looking at the reverse option: absorb the PCs as junior partners in a new party.
Something similar is happening with Kenney and former prime minister Stephen Harper, who is openly supporting Kenney and a “unite the right” merger.
For them, a new provincial party is a way of maintaining leverage in federal politics. They have a lot invested in the idea of Alberta as a home of conservative ideology and of federal Conservative Party strength. Losing their Alberta base damages them strategically at the federal level.
What looks like a powerful pro-merger movement actually is very much based on fears.
For Alberta voters, a Wildrose-PC merger is double-edged. A new party may or may not succeed. And what if it did?
A successful return to a united “conservative” party could give many voters the government they want in Edmonton and the base they want for the federal Conservatives. But the price could be a return to decades of a single-party dynasty in power in Alberta, which is what even Wildrose supporters eventually rebelled against. Nothing in the “unite the right” option is as simple as it may seem.