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EDMONTON, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta's Conservative Party clinched another election in the oil-rich Canadian province on Monday, convincing voters to put aside discontent over its energy policy and strains caused by a years-long boom.
Television networks projected Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives won a surprisingly larger majority of seats in the legislature, cementing the party's rule into a fourth decade. The Conservatives came to power in the province with the largest oil reserves outside Saudi Arabia in 1971.
During the campaign, pundits wondered whether Conservatives' grip on power was threatened due to discontent over shortages of affordable housing and hospital beds, crumbling schools and roads, a stretched workforce and a belief that good times brought about by surging oil prices have passed them by.
But Stelmach, a 56-year-old farmer-turned-politician, touted himself as a voice for change in the province of 3.3 million people, even though he was in the cabinet of his more outspoken predecessor, Ralph Klein.
"We've shown once again that we're in tune with Albertans' values, we're in tune with Albertans' priorities," Stelmach, who has been premier since late 2006, told supporters.
"We also, over the last number of months, showed that we're not afraid to tackle tough issues, we're not afraid to lead."
Late on Monday, the Conservatives won or were leading in 72 out of 83 electoral districts. They previously held 60 seats.
The centrist Liberals, led by Kevin Taft, were taking the biggest losses. They were elected or ahead in 9 districts, a possible loss of seven. The left-wing New Democratic Party, led by Brian Mason, was leading in two districts, down from four.
Taft and Mason struggled to gain traction from Stelmach's decision to hike oil royalties by C$1.4 billion ($1.4 billion) a year, a move that angered the energy sector.
Oil firms plan to spend more than $100 billion developing Alberta's vast oil sands, largely to supply the U.S. market.
During the royalty fracas, oil companies, like EnCana Corp and Talisman Energy Inc threatened to chop spending in the province by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Stelmach recently said he will soften the royalty hit to deal with "unintended consequences," especially for natural gas production.
Opposition parties also failed to capitalize on Klein's admission as he handed the reins to Stelmach that the Conservatives had no plan to deal with the oil boom.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones, Editing by Sandra Maler and Jackie Frank