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An Inevitable Split?

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December 2, 2006, marks a historic date: for all intents and purposes, “Super Saturday” will decide the short and long-term future of this country.

Alberta will elect a new premier, and Liberals will crown a new leader and, possibly, future prime minister. Even though the first event is provincial, no one should doubt that there will be repercussions for the entire country.

While those powers-that-be in Ontario and Québec have not yet realized it, the center of gravity is moving out West, and, whomever Albertans elect as their new premier, their choice will have consequences for the powerhouses of the “Old Canada”.

By the same token, Albertans would be foolish to write off the Liberal leadership event as an “Eastern event” that had nothing to do with them. For their choice of Liberal leader will decide such future developments as the role Alberta and/or provinces will play in the confederation and the structure of the political landscape (e.g., rise or fall of the NDP, collapse of the traditional party system, etc.).

Whatever view you may take in these two leadership votes, both parties, the provincial Tories in Alberta and the Liberal Party of Canada, are set on a course that will take them either to new heights or annihilation – depending on whether those whose favourite candidate loses can find it in themselves to continue to support their party or not.

In Alberta, the writing is on the wall: if Jim Dinning wins, a good percentage of the membership will be driven away. A Ted Morton victory, however, would achieve the same thing, but to a much greater extent.

Soon-to-be former premier of Alberta Ralph Klein’s right-hand man Gary Mar has already promised not to run again if Morton wins. It is quite possible that a disillusioned Mar could pull a number of “Klein MLAs” (Members of the Legislative Assembly) with him and sit as independents in preparation for creating a new party. And that party could then very well turn out to be the next “ruling dynasty” in Alberta.

If Dinning or Ed Stelmach wins, Morton might do the same and leave the party. However, he would probably not start a party from scratch, but simply cross the floor to join the Alberta Alliance (the only party and MLA to endorse Morton). Such a move might strengthen the Alberta Alliance a bit, but wouldn’t do anything to improve its electoral chances: the majority of Albertans consider it a fringe party, and a vote for the Alberta Alliance is a wasted vote.

Either way, a split of the Progressive Conservatives is pre-programmed.

Similarly, the Liberal Party will have a lot of bruised egos to salve come Sunday morning. By all accounts, a victorious Michael Ignatieff would have the biggest potential of splitting the party.

To many (if not most) Liberal party members and supporters, Ignatieff is a tad too right-wing or radical for their taste. Additionally, a Liberal Party led by Ignatieff would most certainly increase votes for the New Democratic Party (NDP), because the traditional swing voter who keeps alternating between Liberals and NDP from one election to the next would not be able to stomach Ignatieff.

I am actually prepared to predict that the NDP would see a drastic increase in its seat count with Ignatieff at the helm of the Liberal Party. Conversely, a Liberal Party under the leadership of Bob Rae or Gerard Kennedy could wipe out the NDP.

Many delegates, it is said, will choose a leader based on electability, i.e., his chance of beating Stephen Harper in the next election. At this point, the issue of electability has become a purely academic one, because Harper has done himself so much damage that a re-election is no longer in the cards for him. In other words, the Liberals will almost certainly win the next election no matter who their leader is.

Naturally, once this happens, the Liberals will gather around their new leader and then-prime minister, but the wounds and rifts inflicted during this long leadership campaign won’t just go away.

In order to prevent a major split, Liberal delegates would be well-advised to choose a leader with the best chances of uniting the party. Or, to put it somewhat more pessimistically, the one candidate who offends the smallest number of party members and voters across Canada.

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