Undecided voters cloud fortunes of Alberta leader

Fri Feb 29, 2008 5:44pm EST
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By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta's Conservatives look set to extend the party's 37-year grip on power in the oil-rich Canadian province despite widespread grumbling over energy policies and strains caused by a years-long boom.

Still, analysts wonder if unusually large numbers of undecided voters before an election on Monday, and calls for change from residents of all political stripes, may translate into a reduced majority for party leader Ed Stelmach, or perhaps even a minority.

"We know that people want change, we know they are upset on any number of issues, but at least a plurality of voters seems to be saying they're going to vote for the Conservatives," Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal College in Calgary, said on Friday. "There's a disconnect here."

This week, a Leger Marketing poll of 900 Albertans put support for the Conservatives at 40 percent. The centrist Liberals had 18 percent, the right-wing Wildrose Alliance had 6 percent and the left-wing New Democratic Party had 5 percent.

However, the poll pegged the undecided vote at a gaping 27 percent, making predictions difficult.

Stelmach's Progressive Conservatives have tried to paint themselves as a change from the old guard, even though many of the same faces are running for reelection. The party came to power during the first Nixon administration in the United States.

Since becoming leader of the province with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East in late 2006, Stelmach, 56, has sometimes gone against the grain of a party that is used to ruling and racking up billion-dollar budget surpluses.

The farmer-turned-politician's millstone has been former Premier Ralph Klein's admission that the government failed to plan for the unprecedented boom that accompanied a buildup of the energy industry to supply the huge U.S. market.   Continued...

<p>Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speaks to the media as he announced an election in Alberta, February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber</p>